Any time I go to Bali, I always end up having a blast, and one of the factors that makes Bali an enjoyable holiday is the crowds of people from around the world. Some come to enjoy the beaches and relax amongst nature, while others come to party and have a good time. I was one of those who like to do a bit of both.
I love sitting by the Nusa Dua beach whilst enjoying the breeze and the sounds of the ocean, and getting my groove on in Seminyak as the sun sets, but coming to Bali for a work trip during the pandemic was different. While I managed to spare some time outside work to explore popular streets and tourist attractions, there were no crowds of tourists to be found, no queuing up to enter beach clubs or restaurants, and no loud music heard from the lanes of clothing markets typically crowded with shoppers.
What I did see instead when I visited Bali during the pandemic in mid-December 2020 were empty streets, restaurant waiters eyeing anyone walking by in hopes that they’d choose their restaurant to dine in, empty boutiques and stores, less crowded nightclubs, taxi drivers on streets waiting for passengers, and the nearly empty Ngurah Rai International Airport.
A group in Penglipuran Village in Bali before the pandemic – a scene we won’t be seeing for a while
Image credit: Ruben Hutabarat
Looking at Jakarta and how the pandemic affected local businesses, and changed the way we work, causing the chaotic streets of Jakarta to be vacant, I did expect Bali to be in the same boat or even worse than the capital.
Tourism is the bread and butter for Balinese people, so with the temporary travel ban to Bali for most countries across the world, I knew that Bali would be hit more than any other island in Indonesia. I saw it in the media too -the changing travel requirements, the closing down of beach clubs and restaurants, and the cancellation of flights to Bali due to the lack of passengers. It’s no wonder that people are staying away from the island.
The government had set strict travel requirements for people within Indonesia who’re going to Bali. Firstly, you’ll need a negative PCR swab test result to enter Bali, best taken 2-3 days prior to your flight. I took my swab test with Speed Lab Clinic in Jakarta, as they had the option of home service which made it convenient and less stressful for me to be tested in the comfort of my own home. The home service swab test cost me Rp. 1,200,000 (~USD 85.51), slightly more expensive than at a clinic, but I was adamant on doing it at home because of the horror stories I’d heard about swab tests.
Naturally, I was expecting the swab experience to be quite uncomfortable, but luckily for me the discomfort was manageable and did not cause me much pain. It helped that the nurses from Speedlab were very gentle and talked me through it.
I got my negative result in 2 days in the form of a PDF file through Whatsapp, so I decided to print the letter just in case anything happened to my mobile phone, so at least I’d still have it as a hard copy. The printed letter proved to be handy, because as soon as I got off the plane, the immigration officers checked my swab test result before I could proceed to the baggage reclaim area.
e-HAC application home page
Officials also require you to register yourself on the e-HAC (Indonesian health alert card) mobile application made by the Indonesian Ministry of Health before you are allowed to exit the Bali airport. This way, authorities can trace your local Bali address and the validity of your test. I downloaded the e-HAC application and filled in the form, which was easy to navigate through.
A paper version of the Health Alert Card is also available
Image credit: Ministry of Health Indonesia
Petitenget Street in North Kuta, taken on a Saturday during midday
As I got out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the lack of traffic. Never did I imagine I would be missing the Bali traffic. Usually, the streets of Bali are always crowded with cars, buses, and motorbikes, and it is often advised to leave your villa or hotel at least 2 hours before you’re scheduled to visit your destination due to traffic congestion.
I recalled my dad saying that traffic reflects a healthy economy – so the lack thereof was my first clue that this trip would be dissimilar to previous trips, and I soon realised how much the pandemic impacted this little island.
A clothing and jewelry stall in North Kuta
My first stop in Bali was Seminyak. The usually bustling streets of Seminyak looked deserted, and truly didn’t feel like Bali. The gloomy weather did not make it look any better as well, as I always imagine Bali to be the perfect holiday island with the sun shining down constantly.
Next, I hit up North Kuta at midday, when usually, people would be out for brunch, shopping, or getting a cold glass of beer on such a Saturday. But none of that was at sight, and clothing stores in Seminyak were quieter than usual.
I had not expected to see people out shopping, understandably because of the fear of catching the virus, concerns about restrictions while outdoors, or residents financial difficulties during this time, but it was definitely a sad sight to see the streets full of boutiques and cafes so uninhabited.
A boutique and ice cream shop along Petitenget Street, North Kuta
I passed a stall selling clothes and hand-made crafts, so I decided to pop in and see how it was doing, as there was barely a soul at sight on the streets. I spoke to one of the vendors, who said she was struggling to sell her items, so she had decided to put up a stall and sell her goods for a discounted rate. When I spoke to her, she hadn’t made any sales as yet. I hope she did make some through the day.
Dewi Saraswati Street in Ubud, 20 minutes from Ubud City Center
My next stop was Ubud, where I chose to go to enjoy the natural surroundings of rice paddies, forests, and waterfalls, something I don’t get to see easily in Jakarta. I went to the popular Tegenungan Waterfall, which was completely empty, despite being a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike.
Only the street sellers were present, many even selling their personal items such as motorbikes and cars to help cover their rent and make a living in the slow economy.
Tegenungan Waterfall’s entrance before and during the pandemic
Image on the left adapted from: Reisewort.de
Through my journey, I noticed that Ubud seemed even more desolate than Seminyak. Many tourist attractions and restaurants were still closed, while the ones that were open had little to no customers.
As December is the peak month of the rainy season in Indonesia, the constant rains certainly did not make the situation better, causing many al fresco restaurants to close early.
My hotel room had an outdoor deck where I could admire the beauty of Ubud
Nevertheless, I found Ubud to be peaceful and beautiful as ever, and took advantage of the rare chance of thoroughly enjoying nature without having to worry about queuing for photos or large crowds, as if I had Ubud all to myself.
My Bali trip is typically not complete without exploring the nightlife. Hence, I decided to take a stroll down the streets of Seminyak in the late evening to grab dinner and relax with a glass of wine, of course strictly following health protocols, such as social distancing and constantly wearing a mask when outdoors.
Motel Mexicola, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Seminyak
The streets in Seminyak were certainly not as busy as it usually gets, and many places were still shut.
Street full of bars in Petitenget, Seminyak
The restaurants and bars that were open were visited mainly by local Balinese people and foreigners who are still living in Bali during the pandemic.
Café Del Mar beach club on a Saturday evening
I always end my trips to Bali by going to a beach club, and I wanted to continue this tradition. Usually, I would have many options to choose from, but this time I didn’t. After repeated calls and getting the standard ‘’Maaf, kami masih tutup mba,’’ (“Sorry, we are still closed, miss”’) response, I finally found one that was open – Café del Mar.
Café Del Mar was beautiful but shared the same fate as other places in Bali during the pandemic, such as fewer customers, employees, and a cut in prices of food and beverages in hopes to attract more people. Prices for food and beverages before the pandemic usually started from Rp. 250,000 (~ USD 17.76) per person, but are now around Rp 150,000 (~USD10.78) per person.
I was curious to find out why Café del Mar decided to remain open when so many of its rivals decided to shut down during the pandemic and the peak season, so I asked one of the waiters who said that Café del Mar was open at 25% capacity and had lowered its prices to cater to a more local crowd. Despite being 75% empty on most days, Café del Mar didn’t plan on shutting down yet, in hopes that the local crowd would help with business.
A taxi driver in Bali
Apart from the F&B industry, taxi drivers in Bali are among the worst-hit by the pandemic. Recently, many of them have been living off their daily earnings because the number of local tourists coming to Bali in December – which is peak season for tourists – has been lower than usual. Of course, this is because international tourists are temporarily barred from entering Indonesia.
There was one time during my trip where I needed to go to the supermarket, and met a taxi driver on the street waiting to take in passengers. He approached me in hopes that I would use his service. I did get on his taxi with little bargaining, something I normally would not do – bargaining is in my blood and I usually compare the rates on other ride-hailing apps before hopping on any taxi.
However, this time, I let the taxi driver charge me extra, as he told me how he was struggling to get passengers in December, when Bali is normally crowded and business is booming. He even waited for me at the supermarket to take me back to my villa to earn that extra bit of cash. I made a mental note to tip my taxi drivers the next time I have to head back to Bali during the pandemic, and hope that tourists will do the same, to help them tide over this difficult time.
The nearly empty Ngurah Rai domestic airport in Denpasar
On my way back to Jakarta I did not know what to expect at the airport, as travel requirements kept changing. To curb the spread of the virus and discourage people from travelling, the government put out a rule requiring domestic travellers to take an additional negative COVID-19 test to enter Java island- which meant I had to take a different test in addition to the one I had already taken to enter Bali.
I managed to get this done at Laboratorium Prodia Klinik in Denpasar for Rp. 275,000 (~USD 19.53), and received my result on the same day. To do so, I used the Halodoc mobile application to book the timing of the test and complete payment. Halodoc made it easy to find the closest clinic to me, as it used my current location, and provided me with many options of clinics in my area.
However, upon learning of this new travel requirement, around 133,000 Indonesians were reported to have cancelled their Bali plans, as many didn’t want to spend that additional cost. Others were afraid of contracting the virus in Bali during the pandemic, and potentially facing mandatory quarantine when they arrive back in Java.
The cancellation of flight tickets, accommodation, transport, and tours combined had caused the Bali economy a USD69 million loss. As I was already in Bali and needed to get back home, I did the rapid antigen test anyway and thankfully was declared negative for the virus.
Upon arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport to catch my flight home to Jakarta, procedures remained the same. The only thing different that I noticed was the presence of a temporary checkpoint to validate passengers’ test results before check-in. The airport saw mainly locals flying back to their hometowns from Bali or transiting in Bali.
The nearly empty departure gate at Ngurah Rai International Airport’s domestic terminal in Denpasar
The flight back was empty too. Flights were only allowed to carry passengers at 25% capacity, and a seat was left empty in between every passenger to maintain social distancing. It so happened that I was lucky to get a seating row all to myself.
I had an entire row of seats on the plane all to myself on my AirAsia flight back to Jakarta
All the flight attendants had masks on and meals were provided with disposable cutlery. The flight was smooth and everyone was well behaved.
As the plane landed, passengers were called by row numbers to collect their luggage and exit the plane in an orderly fashion – as opposed to pre-pandemic times where everyone would try to exit the plane at the same time!
Our island of gods that relies heavily on tourism for its source of income is seeing some dark days, but as the famous saying goes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I truly believe that Bali will be able to recover from the losses incurred during the pandemic, because not only is Bali a popular tourist destination, but I also noticed during my time there that Balinese people are very religious and spiritually strong. This gives them the strength to always be positive, hopeful, and adapt easily to situations even during tough times like these.
I am positive that Indonesia will come out stronger from the pandemic.
Cover image adapted from: @laplanchabali and @inaya.putribali
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