Bali’s economy struggles to survive without tourists

Pura Ulun Dhanu Bratan, Bali ,Indonesia. Photo: Bhasker Thodla / CC BY

Bali’s economic lifeline was severed when the Indonesian government officially closed borders on March 20. Now, after seven months without tourists, the island is struggling to survive.

By Natasha Teja

“When the bombs hit and Mount Agung erupted, visitors could still enter Bali. But today is different. The hotels are closed,” Ni Wayan Suarnadini, a fruit and vegetable farmer, told Channel NewsAsia earlier this year. She receives her income from supplying fresh produce and spices to numerous hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists.

However, with border closures, she says “Demand is zero, so I am totally uncertain about the future… when will the tourists start coming back?” Bali is a center of Southeast Asian tourism, relying heavily on foreign visitors to fuel its economy. With no official announcement on reopening the island to international visitors, Bali is struggling to overcome a difficult challenge.

A ravaged economy

President Joko Widodo has said that Bali has been hit the worst of anywhere in Indonesia by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Figures released by the government showed the island’s economy shrunk by 11% between April and June, in comparison to the capital Jakarta, where the economy shrunk by 8.2%.

It isn’t a surprise that Bali has been devastated: experts estimate tourism contributes, directly or indirectly, to roughly 80% of the economy. The Bali provincial government’s manpower agency estimates that at least 75,000 workers have either been laid off or forced to take unpaid leave due to the pandemic.

Photo of a popular beach club in Bali (The Lawn, Canggu). Photo: Cassie Gallegos on Unsplash

Among those who lost their jobs is Marniati Ningsi Bobo, who had travelled to Bali from her village on the island of Sumba. Attracted by promises of a better life, she lost her job in March and the small café (locally known as a warung) where she worked along the cliffs of Uluwatu closed down. When she spoke with Southeast Asia Globe earlier this year, she was relying on a friend for food and accommodation. Stories like hers are common across the tourist-dependent island.

“I am far from home…thankfully there are good people here who are helping me and letting me stay with them for now. But I don’t know what to do,” she told Southeast Asia Globe, adding that she didn’t have enough money to travel home. Bobo is not alone. Many domestic migrants remain stranded in paradise, unable to afford a trip back to their families.

Finding new ways to survive

With no end in sight, those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic have been forced to take odd jobs in order to survive. Kadek Suarjana, 41, is a father of two and had a good job driving tourists but his income quickly dwindled to zero when the borders closed.

Ferrying tourists around the island would provide him with a monthly income of roughly US$545-815. He was able to buy his own minivan and pay for his children’s education. However, with the onset of the pandemic, Suarjana told Channel NewsAsia “There was no money in the bank. Meanwhile, I have to pay for house rent and bills. For the past five months, I have been tending to other people’s farms and doing construction work. Basically, any odd jobs I can find.” These odd jobs only leave Suarjana with US$30-50 in monthly income.

Many Balinese have also returned to seaweed farming, a popular industry prior to Bali’s tourism boom, as a way to sustain a livelihood. Similarly to Suarjana, the new jobs away from the tourism sector also come with a pay cut.

One former shopkeeper, Ari, told Al Jazeera “Last month, they paid us 13,000 rupiahs [US$0.88] for one kilogram of dried seaweed. This month they are paying only 10,000 rupiahs [$0.68].” This is a far cry from his normal earnings of $5 in profit for each t-shirt he sold to tourists.

A failed domestic experiment

In an attempt to boost Bali’s economy, Indonesia’s central government decided to reopen the island to domestic tourists in late July. However, the island paid a high price as cases of COVID-19 spiked after an estimated 2,500 holiday-goers came flooding in each day. By September 18, Bali had officially recorded a total of 199 fatalities from COVID-19, forcing authorities to enforce tighter screening measures and more testing.

Among those new measures was a requirement to show a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival. Furthermore, Bali was initially set to open its borders to international tourists by September 11, but with its failed domestic experiment, the island now remains closed indefinitely. Bali’s governor, Wayan Koster, said in a statement “The situation is not conducive to allow foreign tourists to come to Indonesia, including Bali.”

When will Bali recover?

The Indonesian government gave a grim warning in April that the pandemic will likely decimate Bali’s economy, with a revenue loss of US$10 billion for 2020. While the government has rolled out stimulus packages, the support is nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss of international tourists.

Widodo stated in a cabinet meeting, “I am confident that this will only last through the end of this year, and by next year there will be a boom in tourism.” However, even if there is a resurgence of tourism in 2021, a holiday in Bali will likely look very different from what it once was until a vaccine becomes readily available.

Bali will have to adapt and find innovative ways to diversify its economy in order to survive. While the situation remains uncertain, many Indonesians are hopeful that 2021 may bring renewed hope. This hope has been echoed by Widodo, who said in April, “Optimism must be raised. We cannot be trapped in pessimism because of the current COVID-19 outbreak.”

About the Author

Natasha Teja
Natasha is a British/Indonesian freelance writer based in Singapore. With a background in geopolitics, she is interested in writing about the current political and socioeconomic issues facing Asia.