What on earth is going on with Bali's long-awaited digital nomad visa?

What's going on with Bali's long-awaited digital nomad visa? Indonesia's tourism minister doesn't seem to know.
PHOTO: Pexels

In the film Groundhog Day (1993), actor Bill Murray is stuck in a time loop where he wakes every morning to discover it is always Feb 2, with the same song, Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe, playing on the clock radio.

The story draws parallels to the long held-ambitions of Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia's minister of tourism and creative economy, to introduce a new class of visa for digital nomads – remote workers and freelancers who travel the globe and earn a living anywhere with a fast and reliable internet connection.

In January 2021, only a month after taking office, Uno began dividing his time between Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, and Bali – and encouraged others to do the same.

"I want to invite businesspeople and other professionals to start considering working from Bali," the minister said.

In June 2021, the minister told the Reuters news service that digital nomads would be granted five-year visas and face no taxation on foreign-sourced income.

"If they earn income within Indonesia they will be taxed, but if it's solely from overseas there will be zero tax," he said. But nothing transpired.

A year later, Uno announced that the drafting of policies for a digital nomad visa had reached its final stages.

"We support Bali as a workcation place for digital nomads with length of stay that are [both] long and with quality, by easing work visas as well as visas related with digital nomad activities," he said. But again, nothing transpired.

Nevertheless, every time Uno uses these magical words that conjure up images of drinking coconuts all day while working on a laptop on the beach, news organisations across the world race to publish reports that pique a lot of interest, but lack substance.

Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s minister of tourism and creative economy, in 2018. PHOTO: Reuters

Meanwhile, social media platforms light up like Christmas trees with simple questions such as "When does it start?" and "How do I apply?" that nobody can ever answer.

It's not hard to understand the never-ending appeal of such reports. In 2021, Bali was ranked as the most popular post-pandemic destination by TripAdvisor's Traveller's Choice Award.

Canggu, a tourism, entertainment and surfing hub on Bali's west coast, is rated as the second most attractive destination for digital nomads, after Lisbon, in Portugal, on NomadList.com, a website that compares more than 2,300 of the world's most digital-nomad-friendly destinations.

And despite the absence of the type of dedicated visa now available in more than 20 other countries, remote workers have been flocking to the island since the dawn of the internet age.

In 2019, before the pandemic put a hiatus on the phenomena, Nomad List founder Pieter Levels estimated that at least 5,000 digital nomads were working in Canggu at any one time.

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Anecdotal evidence of overflowing cafes and fully subscribed co-working spaces today suggest those numbers have bounced back and then some.

They enter Indonesia on tourism, social-cultural or retiree visas to work online and sometimes in clear contravention of Indonesian labour and immigration law, and under the radar of the local tax system.

Authorities in Bali usually turn a blind eye because of the economic bounty digital nomads bring, but every once in a while they make an example of someone.

The most infamous was Kristen Grey, an American caught last year selling an e-book on Twitter in which she shared tips on how to get around Indonesia's pandemic-era travel ban, and who bragged about scoring luxury accommodation for peanuts while promoting Bali as an LGBTQ-friendly destination.

Grey and her girlfriend were arrested, paraded and shamed in front of local media, and then deported at their expense.

The most recent case was a 58-year-old Dutch national, identified only by the initials DMDG, who was caught running an online business following a public tip-off in January.

"DMDG is the holder of temporary stay permit for the elderly. She is not authorised for working or running a business here," north Bali immigration chief Nanang Mustofa said in a statement at the time.

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Indonesia's media groundhog day over digital nomad visas resurfaced again this month, when Uno apparently announced a game-changer.

"So many foreigners come to Indonesia during their winters to Bali for summer weather, it's a favourite destination for digital nomads. For Indonesia we have to change our mindset …

"So we provide social-cultural visas and if you want to extend we can provide for you by upgrading your Kitas [limited-stay permits that are precursors for work]," he said in a video posted on his YouTube channel.

He then appeared to contradict himself, adding that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had given the immigration department an October deadline to upgrade the service and prepare for digital nomads.

"Indonesia has officially approved digital nomad visas," read a headline written by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Reuters jumped on the bandwagon, sharing data from Indonesia's tourism ministry that apparently "showed that more than 3,000 digital nomads entered Indonesia from January to August this year".

Presently, application forms for social-cultural visas offer entry to Indonesia for one of five reasons: Humanitarian activity, sports events, study, art or cultural events, or visiting family and friends.

Remote work does not appear on the list, so it is not known how Indonesia's tourism ministry knows, or Reuters was able to confirm, that any of these 3,000 visa holders are digital nomads.

Moreover, Kitas permits for working purposes are not available as extensions to social-cultural visas. They are issued only to foreigners who have obtained employment from an Indonesian business or charity.

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A member of the legal division of the Ministry of Manpower in Jakarta who spoke on condition of anonymity, because they are not authorised to speak to the media, said a digital nomad visa had not been discussed within the ministry.

Spokespeople for the Ministry of Planning, in Jakarta, and Ministry of Immigration in Bali likewise said they had not been formally briefed about Uno's announcement and any potential changes to the visa regime.

Renny Hans, a visa agent in Bali with a decade's worth of experience, said her office had, in recent weeks, been inundated with enquiries from clients overseas wanting to apply for digital nomad visas.

But she was unable to help them because she had not received any information from the Ministry of Immigration, Ministry of Manpower nor the Ministry of Tourism about the introduction of such a visa.

Another video showing Widodo threatening to sack the entire immigration department for failing to simplify the process for foreign workers applying for a Kitas has thrown more fuel on the fire and seeded many more digital-nomad-friendly reports about Bali and Indonesia.

A new class of social-cultural visa and Kitas may very well be in the works. But Uno has made similar promises before.

Until specific application forms for dedicated digital nomad visas appear on the websites of Indonesian consulates and embassies, all such reports remain speculative.

Digital nomads wishing to stay in Bali will have to continue applying for other classes of visas on false grounds, or invest in Indonesian start-ups – a costly, complicated and lengthy proposition that appeals to few.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.