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As Bali reopens, eyes turn to rebound

05:00pm February 04 2022

As Bali reopened to international travellers today, views among Australian expat business owners are mixed on the economic recovery. (Getty)

When Indonesian officials announced today’s reopening of Bali to all international travellers many locals on the much-loved island province breathed a sigh of relief. 

“We will need a lot of visitors to make a difference, but any small amount right now is a blessing,” says Janet De Neefe, a business owner in Ubud in the Bali’s central foothills. 

“Any income is worth its weight in gold.”

The pandemic’s impact on the island’s economy has been devastating. 

International tourism – which represents around 60 per cent of its economy and has sustained many of Bali’s 4 million residents for generations – virtually ceased. 

With its airport closed to international flights for most of 2021, the Washington Post reports there were just 45 foreign visitors between January and October, compared with 1.05 million in 2020.  In 2019, the year before COVID struck, there were 6.2 million international arrivals – around 20 per cent of those from Australia, the most visitors of any foreign country.

Tourism income is estimated to have fallen from $US16.9 billion in 2019 to $US3.5 billion in 2021, according to Dr Futu Faturay, a policy analyst for Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance speaking at a recent roundtable event held by The Australia-Indonesia Centre. 

Dr Ilmiawan Auwalin, a lecturer at Airlannga University in Surabaya, told the event the most affected groups were young people and women, those with a lower education and lower income. 

“So, the impact is very high in Bali,” he said.

Despite De Neefe’s excitement about the return of tourists, she believes the economic bounce back will be slow.  

“There's still a lot of fear going round,” says the owner of guest houses, bakeries and the Casa Luna Cooking School, who has called Ubud home for more than 30 years since moving there from Melbourne.    

She believes the conditions for entry needed to be clearer and would like to see Bali follow Thailand’s move to scrap all quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers, rather than the current five-day isolation.   

“If the PCR is negative, let them have a holiday and enjoy it,” she says.

Others with business interests in Bali are more optimistic about a revival. 

“It is great news,” says developer James Moses, another Australian ex-patriot, who lived in Bali for three-and-a-half years before the pandemic hit. 

“Australians are so looking forward to getting there.”

Moses is developing a 1.1-hectare luxury beachfront resort at Canggu, about 10 kilometres north of tourism hotspot Seminyak. The development includes a 77-room luxury hotel and 47 private villas, which Moses’ development company, JMGM, is marketing as Hotel Tu Casa. He plans to open late next year.

“In 2019 Bali was jumping – big clubs, great hotel occupancy rates… it was the place to be. It’s a huge international community and everyone who goes there loves it. In my mind it’s a great opportunity,” Moses says.

“I don’t think quarantine will put people off. I think in two or three weeks it will drop down to three days.”

Chef Steven Skelly thinks the revival will take a little longer.

“It’s been pretty desperate,” says the former Sydney-sider who has lived in Bali for nine years and opened seafood restaurant, Uni, just three months before the pandemic. 

“Our business was down 80 per cent.”

He is wary of excitement at the re-opening and says he finds it hard to trust positive news.

“We’ve had so many false starts. Until quarantine is lifted we won’t see any spike in business. Just because the airport is open doesn’t mean people will flood back.”

DeNeefe says the resilience and determination among the Balinese in the face of the devastating downturn has been impressive. 

“I know people have had to sell their land and jewellery to survive,” she says. 

“Now we will probably see a load of new hotels, businesses built by non-Balinese that will further diffuse the Bali grace and aesthetics that we all love.

“But the people here are resilient and always cheery and positive. Still smiling. 

“We should learn from that,” she says.


Peter Wilmoth is a Melbourne-based journalist who for many years wrote features for The Age/The Sunday Age, Good Weekend magazine, and many other publications. A collection of his profiles ‘Up Close: 28 Lives of Extraordinary Australians’ was published by Pan Macmillan in 2005. He is a judge in the Quill Awards for excellence in journalism, in the Features category. For five years he was a media commentator on ABC TV’s News Breakfast. He has co-written autobiographies with actor Bud Tingwell, footballer James Hird, business identity Harold Mitchell and the memoirs of several business identities on private commission.

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