In 2015, in a bid to boost tourism, Indonesia added Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia to the list of countries for which the US$25 (S$34) fee for visa-on-arrival was waived.
“The potential loss will be US$11 million,” then tourism minister Arief Yahya said, adding that the projected additional 450,000 foreign tourists would earn the state an extra US$540 million.
The trick worked. Within two months, tourism arrivals had increased 16 per cent, compared with only 3 per cent over the previous three months. A study on the impact of visa-free entry in Indonesia by Japan’s Hiroshima University the following year confirmed the result, saying “the new visa policy can significantly boost the number of tourist arrivals”.
But when Indonesia, which is currently pulling itself out of two years of Covid-19 restrictions , reintroduced visa-on-arrival from 23 countries (including Australia, Japan and South Korea) on March 7, it was also quietly announced that a fee of US$35 would apply.
Considering the hammering Bali’s economy has suffered over the past two past years and the whopping 41 per cent unemployment rate, according to data by Statista, the reintroduction appears counterproductive.
As does the requirement (at the time of writing) that tourists spend the first three nights and four days of their holiday in Bali at a CHSE (Cleanliness, Health, Safety and Environmental Sustainability)-certified hotel, despite the fact that quarantine has been axed.
Rates for CHSE certified hotels in the rundown tourist precinct Kuta, where nobody wants to stay, start at US$50 per night. This is three times the starting price of accommodation in Canggu, the surfing, foodie and nightlife capital of Bali, and Ubud, the spiritual capital of Bali.
The additional costs for choosing to be among the first tourists to return to Bali do not end there. Despite presenting a negative result for a PCR test taken no more than 48 hours before departure from their homelands, tourists must pay US$20 for a second PCR test when they land.
Then, after making their way to their CHSE hotel and coming into close contact with numerous people, they must isolate in their rooms until they receive a negative result for their second PCR test, which can take up to 24 hours. Two days later, they have to be tested again.
In regional destinations such as Australia and the Maldives that have also reopened for tourism , passengers are simply required to present a negative result on arrival. This raises the question: are three PCR tests necessary? Do they protect the local population from the import of Covid-19?
“It is good to see the government being so careful,” says Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist who has helped formulate Indonesia’s pandemic response strategy for more than 20 years. “But I don’t fully support this. Three tests are too much for me. A rapid test on arrival would suffice.”
Tourists coming to Bali are also required to download the Pedulingi tracing app, and upload a completed E-HAC (electronic health alert) form, as well as their vaccine and travel insurance certificates. The process is complicated and becomes even more so for those with children under the age of 12 or who have received the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine.
Many are also confused by a “two PCR test and 30-day insurance” package being sold at the airport for US$105, and whether it is mandatory or not.
“I would like to know if it’s possible to just buy an individual PCR test and not the package? I already have unlimited medical coverage,” Joyce Aernouts, one of hundreds of confused travellers, wrote on the popular Bali Covid-19 Update Facebook page, which in recent days has descended from the go-to site for pandemic-related information on the island to a forum for people seeking elaboration on immigration policy.
“There are still some vague dots to fill in at hotels, airport staff,” wrote Kelvin Engelsman. “Unfortunately, some things are not synced yet and from what I have read and heard this is typically Indonesian.”
The confusion is reflected in official arrival numbers. On March 9, two days after the reopening, 31 foreign tourists landed and bought visas-on-arrival in Bali, all of them arriving from Singapore. Jamaruli Manihuruk, head of the Bali office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, noted it was four times as many as landed on Day 1, describing the result as a breath of fresh air for tourism in Bali.
But not everyone feels the same. “They’re boasting about 31 tourists arriving in one day,” the owner of a guest house in Ubud that has been shut for two years said on condition of anonymity. “They should be ashamed.”
It’s still early days and the arrival process for tourists in Bali is bound to become easier and less complicated in the coming months. Last week, the government launched welcomebacktobali.com, a one-stop information source for arriving passengers. And the Balinese people are, as usual, going above and beyond to make tourists feel welcome.
“Everyone was really helpful and we had absolutely no problems,” said Miriam Tulevski, a tourist from Australia who used to live in Indonesia and was over the moon to return. “The process is evolving and balancing everyone’s needs.”
The one thing that appears clear is that the reboot of Bali’s once-mighty tourism industry is not going to happen in a hurry. But looking at the disproportionally oversized media attention the island received throughout the pandemic and its consistent topping of polls on destinations people want to revisit, it is also clear that tourism here will recover.
“The amount of tourists now is nothing compared to 2019, when 6 million foreign people visited the island,” says Ahmad Syahfitrah, director of operations at the Potato Head Beach Club. “But when international travel fully recovers in a few years, we are pretty sure we’re going to see double that number because everyone misses Bali.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.