How Bali’s vacation island survived two years without mass tourism
“If the airport closes, Bali will die.”
This dire prediction – uttered in March 2020 by one of the thousands of tourism workers who lost their jobs as the international tourism juggernaut came to a halt – turned out to be half correct.
On April 2, Indonesia stopped issuing tourist visas and Bali’s international airport was forced to close. By the end of the month, 41% of the island’s workers were no longer employed, according to Statista data, while the once-busy tourist districts of Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud became ghost towns overnight. And while many Balinese began a fight for survival that continues to this day, Bali is not economically dead.
One of the reasons the economy kept spinning was the tens of tens of thousands of expatriates who remained. Gathered in the hipster hub of Canggu on the west coast and the surfing nirvana of Uluwatu in the deep south of the island, they spurred demand for delivery, housekeeping and other services, putting food on the table for thousands of families.
Many expatriate chefs and restaurateurs have also stepped in to help their Balinese hosts by turning their places into free food banks. People like Australians Brad Downes of the Tropicana Churros Cafe, who fed 600 people a day, and Josh Herdman of Sea Circus, who raised enough money from expats and Baliphiles overseas to feed 3,000 people a day .
British national Robert Epstone of Solemen Bali, a charity that looks after 2,400 of Bali’s most deprived people, had the ingenious idea of placing food donation bins in Western-style supermarkets. Dozens of Indonesians have also opened their businesses and homes to anyone in need of a meal.
The four months between April and September 2020 during which Bali was in lockdown were a fascinating time for foreigners visiting the island. Restaurants, bars, gyms and even beaches were closed, although a vibrant underground social scene sprang up where barbecues and parties were held in villas every day of the week.
Some surfers snuck onto shoreline beaches before dawn, while others discovered secret coves that had escaped the notice of authorities. And while such behavior may look like white privilege, most locals — in part because of their innate distrust of government — have also ignored Covid-19 protocols.