DENPASAR, INDONESIA: Hundreds of Chinese tourists on vacation in Bali are scrambling to avoid going home, fearing both infection from the deadly new coronavirus and Beijing’s handling of the epidemic.
Concerns over the rapidly spreading outbreak prompted Indonesia to shut down all flights to and from China this month, hammering the bottom lines of restaurants, hotels, travel agents and interpreters on the popular resort island.
But with more than 2,800 dead from the COVID-19 illness on the Chinese mainland, and entire cities under lockdown, immigration officials in Bali say nearly a thousand Chinese nationals have applied for emergency visa extensions.
“I’m an international refugee,” Steve Li, the manager of a European firm in a major mainland city, said at an upscale mall in the island’s capital Denpasar.
“China is like a big prison, all the cities are locked down,” he added.
Li says he does not believe Beijing’s assurances that the country is getting the epidemic under control.
While he plans to return to work, Li, who asked not to be identified by his real name, is leaving his wife and two young children behind to wait out the public health crisis.
“I’m managing the company so I can’t ask my guys to continue to work while I hide here,” he said.
About a million Chinese tourists visit Bali each year — the second-largest group of foreign arrivals after Australians — and inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.
Thousands traveled there from the mainland for last month’s Lunar New Year holiday just as the virus outbreak was beginning to snowball, prompting the lockdown of China’s Hubei province where the infection was first detected.
Beijing flew home groups of overseas tourists from around Asia last month citing the “practical difficulties” they faced abroad, as fears of the contagion prompted several countries to bar entry to arrivals who had recently been in China.
Only a few dozen Chinese travelers in Bali took up the offer.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Bali Tourism Agency chief Putu Astawa said. “They don’t want to go back.”
Zilong Wang of Beijing said that he was postponing his return because he believed his government had underplayed the infection’s true toll. “I’d rather stay in Bali and watch the situation,” the 30-year-old said outside an immigration office swamped with anxious Chinese tourists, waiting in line for hours in the hope of extending their stay.
Wang said that he was also wary of other Chinese travelers, despite the lack of confirmed virus cases in Indonesia. “I’ve been trying to stay inside the hotel,” he said.
“I am nervous when I meet some other Chinese people especially when they don’t wear masks. I’m afraid of getting infected.”
Some travelers are preparing back-up plans in case their requests to extend their stays are denied.
Heather Wang, a real estate agent from eastern Zhejiang province, has been in Bali since late January and has no plans to return home — even if she cannot stay on the tropical island.
She is waiting to hear back from the Australian embassy on whether her application for a tourist entry permit has been successful.
“If Australia doesn’t approve my visa I think I’ll be going to Thailand,” the 26-year-old said.