For the foreigners riding out the Covid-19 pandemic on Indonesia’s tourist island of Bali, the beaches of Seminyak and Canggu offer a lifestyle from 2019 – a time before social distancing and mask-wearing were the norm.
In nightclubs on the south coast – a popular destination for surfers and digital nomads embracing the “hustle culture” of working anywhere, anytime – women in glitzy costumes dance to loud music and partygoers drink the nights away with both friends and strangers.
Mask wearing and social distancing are not enforced at these venues, though they do check the temperatures of patrons and provide hand sanitiser. There is just one rule: phones must be surrendered on entry so that no photos of this pre-Covid lifestyle find their way to social media .
Yet in public, Bali is making concerted efforts to ensure its 4.3 million residents observe strict Covid-19 protocols.
In Ubud recently, police were stopping motorcyclists not wearing face masks – but not those without helmets. Meanwhile, recently introduced regulations mean foreigners – an estimated 30,000 have remained in Bali during the pandemic – can be fined 1 million rupiah (US$70) if they are caught not wearing a face mask in public, while locals have to pay just 100,000 rupiah.
Dewa Nyoman Rai Darmadi, head of Bali’s Public Order Enforcers authority, said nearly 500 foreigners and about 20,000 locals had been fined for the violation.
Many shops around Bali have put up signs saying “no mask, no service”, though it is still common to see maskless tourists being served.
These two sides of Bali underscore the struggles it has faced as border closures due to Covid-19 have decimated its tourism-dependent economy. Leisure operators on the island are trying to give the remaining foreigners and domestic tourists the sense they are on holiday, even as the pandemic continues to rage across Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s worst hit country with 1.79 million cases. Bali itself has recorded more than 47,000 cases, and over 1,200 virus-linked deaths, including a patient that contracted a variant first discovered in South Africa.
Tourism made up 53 per cent of Bali’s economy and employed around a million workers before the pandemic. But last year, only around a million international tourists visited the island, a decline of 83 per cent from 2019. As a result, Bali’s economy contracted 12 per cent in 2020 year on year, and nine per cent in the first quarter of this year.
For officials, enforcing coronavirus curbs for the foreigners who have remained in Bali is challenging, said Putu Aswata, head of the Bali Tourism Agency.
“There is a tendency for foreigners, particularly around the Canggu area, to skirt the [Covid-19 health protocols]. We often carry out operations to maintain the order there, and sometimes we deport foreigners who do not follow the rules,” Putu said.
According to Jamaruli Manihuruk, head of the regional office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights in Bali, 198 foreigners have been deported since the beginning of the pandemic. Some of those people had violated visa rules. But in one notorious case, the Russian social media influencer Leia Se was deported after painting a coronavirus mask onto her face after she was refused entry into a supermarket on the grounds she was maskless.
“We took [the Leia Se case] seriously as she was undermining our health protocols. Things like that can mar Bali’s good name, and this is a lesson for all tourists to heed the law,” Putu said.
Dewa of the Public Order Enforcers added: “If the same foreigners are caught twice violating the Covid-19 rules, we will recommend the immigration agency deport them.”
Asked about night clubs and venues that were still crowded by revellers around the south Bali area, Dewa said that “the places might look crowded, but they do not exceed the 50 per cent of total capacity regulation”.
He said that at present “the financial situation of the majority of the public also prohibits them” from going out like they used to before the pandemic. “For us it’s not really a problem if visitors dance inside without wearing masks, because when they come to Bali they have been screened according to the applicable [law]. So Bali’s economy can run, while at the same time health protocols are still being heeded. We need to balance things out.”
One development of the Covid era is that Russians – thanks to Leia Se and others like her – have become the butt of many jokes. A recent comedy show in Canggu went to town on the series of deportation orders that have hit Russian influencers caught not following the rules, with six out of seven comics poking fun at Russians with jokes about gold-digging women and men who treat their hangovers with vodka.
In December, two Russian influencers rode their motorcycle into the waters of the scuba diving-haven of Nusa Penida. They were deported the next month. In April, a viral video showed two Russian tourists performing a lewd act on the sacred Mount Batur. Local authorities are still hunting the pair, who are believed to have returned to Russia.
Bali’s governor Wayan Koster has set a target of inoculating 2.8 million residents by June 30 to allow the island to reopen to foreign tourists in July. As of May 23, nearly 1.4 million Balinese had been inoculated with a first dose of either the Sinovac or AstraZeneca vaccine, according to Putu.
The foreigners who have remained in Bali during the pandemic on temporary stay permits are also eligible for the public inoculation programme.
On a recent morning, both locals and foreigners flocked to a vaccination centre in Canggu to get the first dose of the AstraZeneca jab.
Jakarta is also trying to help Bali’s pandemic-hit economy with initiatives that include sending up to 8,000 civil servants to work from Bali and creating a new type of visa for digital nomads.
“Since Bali’s tourism sector holds a strategic role in supporting the national economy, I think it’s fair that the central government pays attention to it through Work from Bali. This shows that the government cares about tourism workers in Bali,” Putu said.
The past year had been tough for tourism workers in Bali, Putu said, so now the island hoped the trend of remote working would buoy the economy, at least until international borders reopened.
“In normal situations we welcome around 16 million tourists every year. That is a really difficult target now since many planes are still grounded and borders remain closed,” he said.
“The staycation tourists will be significant for us, as we are hoping to attract domestic travellers who typically spend their money overseas.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.