Nicodemus Freddy Hadiyanto
‘Beauty calls out to me, throughout the island. Where are you, that stunning image… Hey oya, hey yo, return my Bali to me… ‘
Two years into the pandemic, reflecting upon Bali’s current situation and its future brings to mind the ballad ‘Kembalikan Baliku’, written in the 1980’s by Guruh Soekarnoputra, the youngest son of Indonesia's first president Soekarno. Some questions immediately follow, ‘What will you go back to Bali?’ Where do you want to go Bali, what do you want to be?
Bali’s travel industry-based economy has been decimated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is the dream of Bali-style tourism still alive? Or have the people of Bali ‘moved on’ from tourism, to survive and flourish by other means?
‘Kanggoin’ and forgetting tourism
Unquestionably, many in Bali still hold on to the hope that the government will expedite policies and mechanisms that pave the way for tourism to return to normal. This is exemplified by the enthusiastic public response to the vaccine program – a precondition for reopening - when it was launched in 2021.
In the past year, the central government has launched several efforts to save Bali and its tourism sector. The Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy under Minister Sandi Aga Uno relocated its entire operations from Jakarta to Bali. This gave birth to the 'Work from Bali' (WFB) program, encouraging people outside Bali to move and work from Bali virtually. This concept provided the impetus for several thousand Jakartans to migrate to Bali and work remotely. A friend from Jakarta who made the move was happy with their decision, ‘it's good to remotely work from here, room prices are affordable, rooms are always cleaned, there is a swimming pool and if you want to hangout there are heaps of places'.
To meet the needs of the influx of Jakartans, my neighbour, Jik Koplot, who was employed at a hotel in Nusa Dua, was able to go back to work albeit on a reduced shift arrangement, ‘it’s not so bad, there have been local guests, even though the income is not as much as before’, he told me. According to 2021 BPS Data in the second year of the pandemic in Bali, although the unemployment rate decreased slightly compared to the initial year of the pandemic, the poverty rate continued to increase. ‘The basic salary is not what it used to be, and local guests rarely give tips,’ Koplot explained.
Others have not been so lucky. Another neighbour decided to look for opportunities in the Maldives, and was able to find work as a chef there, ‘I was basically made redundant, Mas, and I got this offer in the Maldives with a better salary, that's why I left,’ he confided.
On 14 October 2021, following guidelines from the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bali began to incrementally open up to foreigners. At the time Vice President Ma'ruf Amin forecast that tourism in Bali would recover by January 2022. Needless to say, with the new Omicron variant taking hold globally in early December, this target was not reached.
‘Yes…but Omicron is now endemic in Australia and Europe, bro, see for yourself. It's already February 2022, the world of tourism is still quiet,’ explained Mas Arif, who is a manager at a restaurant in popular Canggu. ‘But I'm strong, I'm ready to wait it out,’ he added.
In Balinese society the word ‘kanggoin’ means surrender, or to acquiesce. Although the tourism industry has been slow to get back on track, relying predominately on local tourists, the Balinese are still hopeful that one day things will improve. ‘We just have to bear it, Mas, even though the salary is not full, at least I have a job, it's okay, Mas,’ said Koplot.
Resilience and ingenuity
As we enter the third year of the pandemic and, it appears, we are no closer to a tourism revival, Balinese are demonstrating extraordinary resilience and ingenuity. Many survive on mediocre salaries with the hope that tourism will recover soon, but many more have switched professions independently, armed with their existing skills and small capital. For more than two years society has changed and metamorphised, and Balinese are to be applauded for their independence and self-motivation.
Home-based industries are booming, ranging from culinary enterprises, to online auctions of used motorcycles, coffee shops, sale of arak and palm wine, to buying and selling ornamental, indoor plants.
This cohort of society has experienced a slow period of adaptation and transformation. ‘I used to be a bus driver for specialist tourist tours from China,’ Pak Joni told us. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Pak Joni has been ostensibly unemployed. ‘Finally, I decided to sell coffee and nasi bungkus, for the sake of my family, Mas,’ said Pak Joni, pointing to a motorbike that he had turned into a portable food stall.
Pak Joni is remarkable and unique. Selling to locals around the beach road or Dewi Sri in the Kuta area he cuts a striking figure that seems out of place. He is easily recognisable by his very neat and formal attire, replete with tie, collared shirt and closed toe footwear. ‘My uniform when I was a tour bus driver, it's neat like this, shirt, tie and shoes, so I still feel like I am working like before, keeping up appearances,’ he explained. Pak Joni is an example of many in Bali who proactively chose to change career directions and to begin to forget about tourism.
‘I don't give up, but if I'm honest, any success is due to blood, sweat and tears… but I have dependent children who are still in college,’ said Mas Nur, a 44-year-old entrepreneur I met at his newly established tempong rice stall set-up to sustain his family after his travel tour business folded.
Samuel, a 34-year-old who lost his job as a graphic designer at a famous restaurant in Seminyak two years ago, echoes Mas Nur’s sentiments. ‘To say that I didn't despair would be untrue, it was incredibly distressing and overwhelming, but I realised that life had to go on and I focused this energy on my food stall, until now,’ he told me.
Young couple Ary and Mbak Vana, held a similar outlook, ‘we don't give up, we just keep trying to support each other through this chaos and keep trying our best’. Both Ary and Vana lost their jobs at a well-known Japanese restaurant in Bali and have now created a business selling indoor plants.
Mas Nur, Samuel, Ary and Vana all sensed from the start that the impact of the pandemic was going to different from other disasters that have hit Bali, such as the Mount Agung eruption in 2017 or the 2002 Bali bombing tragedy. ‘Conditions like this will take a long time to recover from, Mas,’ observed Mas Nur. ‘I have Singapore guests who are still contacting me, they say they really want to go to Bali, but their government has not allowed them to leave and come here,’ he continued.
Being attuned to the prospect of lengthy recovery from the pandemic has motivated Mas Nur and others to proactively bow out of the tourism industry, despite it being their bread and butter for years. The urge to continue to survive and support their families emboldened them to set-up businesses even with limited capital and skills, and without the help of local authorities and the government.
‘I have never applied for social assistance from the government during this pandemic, I believe in God rather than the government,’ explained Samuel. Meanwhile, Mas Nur’s decision to forfeit hand-outs was informed by other considerations; 'The rules are too complicated and the value of the aid is not commensurate with what must be done and implemented.'
Naturally, any new start-up will have challenges, particularly when it involves up-skilling. For our entrepreneurs Samuel, Mas Nur, Ary and Vana, this is a continual learning process and one they are largely managing by using virtual platforms and online marketing.
Despite their progress, I wonder how long can they survive, and what will it take to keep going?
‘Don't despair, Mas, love the work you are currently doing and don't stop learning about new things,’ Ary and Vana reassure me.
‘For me, I love my current job, Mas, when we cook with love, even simple dishes taste great,’ continued Mas Nur
No one could have ever foreseen how this pandemic would impact the tourism industry in Bali, and no one will know when it will end. For Samuel, Mas Nur, Ary and Vana instead of holding onto past glory days, they are looking forward to forging new ways of being.
‘Don't you miss the world of tourism?’ I asked.
‘Nope. Zero interest. I don't want to do it anymore, I just want to focus on my small shop, which for two years has fed me and my family,’ Samuel replied. Mas Nur echoed this sense of renewal, ‘Oh no, not at all, Mas… I want my business to grow and have stalls everywhere. As for tourism, ah... forget it, I’m done with it’.
Nicodemus Freddy Hadiyanto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bali based sociologist and musician, well known for his role as vocalist and lyricist for the critically acclaimed post-punk group Armada Racun. Freddy currently works as a DJ, and continues to make electronic music is his down time. Freddy has previously written for Inside Indonesia about the resilience of Bali's musicians and performers during the pandemic.