DENPASAR: Balinese tour operators have turned to novel methods to weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic as health measures force business closures across the island.
It did not take long for the outbreak to take a toll on I Kadek Didi Suprapta’s business as a tour operator in Indonesia.
An international travel ban and an absence of foreign visitors to the country forced him and dozens of his employees to return to their village on the foothills of Mount Batur in the northeast of Bali and away from the southern part of the island, where most of its tourism hot spots are located.
“It never crossed my mind that I would be back at my parents’ house in the village. I had to shut down my business as tourism abruptly stopped and we no longer had clients,” Suprapta told Arab News.
Towards the end of March after reporting its first coronavirus case, Indonesia’s government issued a travel restriction order which included the suspension of free visas for foreigners.
The restrictions brought tourism — a lifeline for the island’s economy — to a standstill.
Tourism in Bali, an island famous for its beaches, bore the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
The sector, which normally contributes 55 percent to regional gross domestic product, previously survived and recovered from two terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005, the SARS and rabies outbreaks, and volcanic eruptions from the famous Mount Agung.
But eight months into the pandemic, islanders are yet to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Several closed shops, hotels and restaurants line empty and quiet streets which would normally be bursting at the seams with tourists.
The cafes along the main street in Ubud’s Tegallalang village, which offers a view to the lush rice terrace fields, as well those along the Legian Street, where the first Bali bomb attack took place, were shut down, with the street housing them wearing a deserted look.
Footfall in Bali’s Jimbaran, Kuta and Seminyak beaches is also low, except for a few locals enjoying uninterrupted access without the usual crowd of tourists.
Meanwhile, farmers in Gobleg village in the northern district of Buleleng said they had also felt the impact of the pandemic after demand for their vegetables, which were mostly grown for the tourism sector, plummeted.
“Hotels, restaurants and supermarkets absorbed about 90 percent of our vegetables,” said Gede Suardita from Gobleg village, who left the tourism industry 20 years ago to become a farmer.
Suardita added that the village also saw the return of nearly 1,200 residents who were previously employed in the tourism sector.
Suprapta agreed and said the retail space where his office was located has now been converted into a laundry shop, while he has switched to earning a living by opening a convenience store in Songan village near Lake Batur.
He says he used his IT skills to develop an app and introduced farmers to digital marketing. The app connects his former employees-turned-shallot farmers with customers and cuts out the middleman along the distribution chain.
According to data from the Bali Tourism Agency, 2,667 people in the sector were dismissed from their jobs, while 73,631 are on a furlough scheme following a freeze of the tourism sector. At the same time, the provincial government lost 9.57 trillion Indonesian rupiahs ($679 million) in revenue from tourism every month.
However, a public holiday to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on Thursday and the government allowing Wednesday and Friday off as collective leave days, offered Bali a respite due to a steady flow of domestic tourists from other parts of Indonesia holidaying on the island during the long weekend.
“We had up to 1,000 domestic tourists during the five-day holiday. The hotels along Kuta and Jimbaran beaches were full again. We are grateful that the central government has declared the collective leave days,” I Putu Astawa, head of the Bali Tourism Agency said in a virtual press conference from Seminyak.
Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar said the central government was working with Bali’s provincial government and other agencies to secure the reopening of the island to foreign tourists.
“We hope to do it in a pilot project involving a number of selected countries by the end of the year,” Siregar added.
The provincial government had intended to reopen the island for foreign tourists on Sept. 11, but the plan was shelved after the central government said Indonesia would not be welcoming foreign tourists until the end of the year.
However, Balinese have learned to avoid relying on tourism for an income, despite the sector being the island’s main economic driver for at least two or three generations.
“There are some lessons learned from this pandemic. We have learned that the agriculture sector is resilient since it absorbs the workforce from all kinds of background and education levels,” Astawa said.
In Gobleg, the villagers who returned have become farmers, said Suardita, who is part of the island’s Petani Muda Keren (Cool Young Farmers) network.
The network is using the tourism hiatus to turn the tide on the pandemic in the form of farming. The customs and culture of agriculture pushed forward Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination several decades ago.
But the quick money from tourism may lure those who found temporary solace in farming back to the tourism sector, said I Nengah Sumerta, also an activist at Petani Muda Keren.
“I think 90 percent of those who have benefited from tourism would return when tourism revives in two or three years. We have been so hammered by tourism since it is the easiest way to earn money compared to farming,” he told Arab News.