NUSA DUA, Indonesia — Bali wants the world to know it’s back.
Dozens of world leaders and other dignitaries are traveling to the Indonesian island for the G-20 summit to provide a welcome spotlight on the revitalization of the tropical destination’s vital tourism sector.
Tourism is the main source of income on this idyllic ‘Island of the Gods’, known for its tropical beaches, terraced paddy fields, mystical temples and colorful spiritual offerings.
The pandemic hit Bali harder than most places in Indonesia.
Before the pandemic, 6.2 million foreigners came to Bali every year. The bustling tourism scene – fueled by party-goers, laid-back surfers and spiritual seekers – faded after Indonesia’s first case of COVID-19 was detected in March 2020. Restaurants and resorts closed and many workers returned to their villages trying to make ends meet.
According to government data, the number of foreign tourists fell to just 1 million in 2020, mainly in the first months of the year, and then to a few dozen in 2021. More than 92,000 tourism workers lost their jobs and average hotel occupancy rates in Bali fell below 20%.
The island’s economy shrank by 9.3% year-on-year in 2020 and continued to contract in 2021.
“The outbreak of the coronavirus has hit the local economy terribly,” said Dewa Made Indra, regional secretary of Bali Province. “Bali is the region with the strongest economic contraction.”
The island is home to more than 4 million people who are mostly Hindu in the predominantly Muslim archipelago nation.
After closing to all visitors at the beginning of the pandemic, Bali reopened to Indonesians from other parts of the country in mid-2020. That helped, but then a wave of cases in July 2021 drained the island’s normally busy beaches and streets again. Authorities restricted public activities, closed the airport and closed all shops, bars, restaurants, tourist attractions and many other places on the island.
Deprived of their favorite food source — bananas, peanuts and other treats given to them by tourists — monkeys began raiding villagers’ homes in search of something tasty to eat.
The island reopened to domestic travelers a month later, in August, but only 51 foreign tourists visited the island throughout 2021.
Things are looking a lot better now. Shops and restaurants in places like Nusa Dua, a resort area where the G-20 meeting is being held, and other cities like Sanur and Kuta have reopened, although business is slow and many shops and hotels are still closed or operating have reduced .
The reopening of Bali’s airport to international flights and now the thousands flocking to the G-20 summit and other related events have raised hopes for a stronger turnaround, Dewa said.
As of October this year, more than 1.5 million foreign tourists and 3.1 million domestic travelers had visited Bali.
Bali is embracing more sustainable tourism models and has launched a digital nomad visa scheme, dubbed the “second home visa,” which is set to come into effect in December. It’s also among the 20 destinations that Airbnb recently announced a remote work partnership with, including locations in the Caribbean and Canary Islands.
Recovery will likely take time even if COVID-19 is kept in check.
Gede Wirata, who had to lay off most of the 4,000 employees at his hotels, restaurants, clubs and on a cruise ship during the worst of the pandemic, noted that many of them had found work abroad or on other trips when the time came It was time to rehire her company.
The G-20 is a welcome boost. “This is an opportunity for us to rise from the collapse,” he said.
There is a way to go.
“The situation has not yet fully recovered, but in any case, life must go on,” said Wayan Willy, who runs a travel agency in Bali with some friends. Before the pandemic, most of their customers were overseas. Now it’s mostly domestic tourists. But even those are few.
Bali has suffered greatly in the past. Sometimes the island’s majestic volcanoes have burst to life, sometimes they have erupted or spewed ash.
The dark cloud of suicide bombings in Bali’s beach town of Kuta, which killed 202 mostly foreign tourists in 2002, lingered for years, ravaging tourism on an island normally known for its peace and tranquillity.
Recent torrential rains have caused flooding and landslides in some areas, adding to the strain on communities working to rebuild their tourism businesses.
As the situation began to improve, Yuliani Djajanegara, who runs a company that manufactures traditional beauty products such as massage oils, natural soaps and aromatherapy products under the Bali Tangi brand name, got back to work.
She had closed her factory in 2020 as orders from hotels, spas and salons in the US, Europe, Russia and the Maldives dried up, taking orders for her products in excess of 1,000 kilograms (1 ton) to almost nothing.
So far, Djajanegara has rehired 15 of the 60 workers she had to lay off during the dark days of the pandemic.
She is hopeful but cautious.
“Tourism in Bali is like a sandcastle,” said Djajanegara. “It’s beautiful, but it can be washed away by the waves.”
AP Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.