Bali is cracking down on undesirable foreigners. Is it an overreaction?
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Denpasar: For more than two years Bali was starved of overseas tourists as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the world. Now, with the global health crisis seemingly in the rear-view mirror, they are back in droves, with almost 1.5 million arriving on the island between January and April alone.
But while Bali’s tourism industry has been re-energised, foreigners have been on the nose.
Most notably, a Russian man and woman were deported last month for posing nude for photos – the former atop a mountain peak and the latter in front of a sacred tree – acts seen as highly disrespectful of cultural norms on the Hindu-majority Indonesian island.
There have also been high-profile cases of local laws being flouted, including a long-time Australian expatriate woman who was thrown out of the country after footage went viral of her defying police who stopped her to issue a fine for riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
Additionally, foreigners have been found to be working as photographers, hiring out motorbikes and doing other jobs without proper visas in a crackdown that might have more far-reaching implications.
Keen to dissuade undesirable visitors from travelling to Bali, the Indonesian government has been weighing up introducing a tourist tax, and regional authorities have spoken of bringing in a tourist quota. A ban on foreigners renting motorbikes was also proposed but then aborted.
Foreign tourists on a scooter pass by a motorcycle and car rental shop in Kerobokan, Bali. Credit: Amilia Rosa
“We will no longer welcome mass tourism. We will restrict [arrivals] by implementing a quota system,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster said this month.
“If there is a quota, then people will have to queue. Those who want to come next year can sign up from now. That’s the system we want to apply.”
Koster, who made headlines in March when he refused to welcome the Israeli team for the FIFA under-20 men’s World Cup, went on to say that, if change wasn’t implemented, Bali would only attract “cheap tourists” who would eat rice wrapped in banana leaves or paper, violate traffic rules on rented motorbikes and “steal from ATMs”.
However, questions have been asked in Bali about whether leaders are overreacting to incidents of misbehaviour, illegality and visa breaches and risk turning away vital business with sweeping policy shifts designed to appeal to so-called quality tourism.
Bali Governor Wayan Koster has foreshadowed changes to the island’s approach to tourism.Credit: Amila Rosa
Figures from Bali’s justice office reveal there had been 111 deportations up to mid-May this year, with the greatest offenders being Russians who have flocked to the island since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Last year, 194 people were deported while, in 2021, as the pandemic raged, 197 were deported.
It is a fraction of the overall intake this year, which had reached 1.48 million by April said Bali tourism office head Tjok Bagus Pemayun, even if it is clearly not representative of all of those who have stepped out of line.
A ban on foreign tourists renting motorbikes was proposed after a string of accidents, but then aborted.Credit: Bloomberg
Political aspirant Gede Suardana has warned against snap decisions being made.
“Bali’s economy is still far from recovered. Many businesses are still struggling to survive,” said Gede Suardana, an ex-journalist and entrepreneur who is running for an upper house seat representing Bali in next February’s national elections.
“It is understandable when they react strongly to foreigners working and robbing them of their livelihood. But let the authorities handle it in a measured response to the level of violation.
“Tourism policy should be taken calmly, with a visionary look to the future. Bali tourism involves all levels of community, from street hawkers to five-star facilities. Servicing backpackers to luxury tourists. Meaning whatever policy the government is planning on making, it needs to consider all levels of Balinese people involved. Allowing all Balinese to benefit from tourism.”
Gede Mahatma Jaya, the deputy chairman of Bali’s motorcycle rentals association, said rentals had plummeted by 50 per cent when Koster announced plans to prohibit foreigners from hiring them.
Gede Mahatma Jaya, deputy chairman of Bali’s motorcycles rental association.Credit: Amilia Rosa
“Even though the banning is now not going to happen, I still have questions from my customers asking about it … if they come [to Bali] now [they ask] can they rent motorbikes? We are still being affected,” he said.
“The problematic tourists, they broke the law, traffic laws. It means an existing law already exists. We don’t need new laws or regulations, just to enforce the existing rules.”
A Bali tourist tax has been suggested before without ever materialising and the concept has reared its head again as Indonesia approaches the election campaign.
Rai Surya Wijaya, the head of the Badung regency hotels and restaurant association, said, “When we do the maths, the percentage of the problematic tourists we are talking about is 0.0001 per cent, not even 0.1 per cent.”
Russian woman Luiza Kosykh was deported in April after an image surfaced of her posing nude next to a sacred 700-year-old tree in Bali.Credit: Instagram
It is unclear how a quota would work if it was brought into force, but as far as Wijaya understands Bali’s future measures would not involve screening would-be tourists, only increasing “visitor management” protocols.
“If we screen only for the wealthy, many businesses will collapse,” he said. “The governor mentioned quality tourism. It’s not to be mistaken with high-end or premium-only tourism. Quality tourism doesn’t mean we only welcome wealthy tourists. We welcome all.”
He added, though, that Bali, which has 150,000 hotel rooms, needed to manage its resources carefully.
“For example, we need to halt the rapid land conversion. Each year up to 200 hectares of [fertile land] is being converted from farming to accommodation or tourism-supported structures,” he said.
“We have learnt from the pandemic. Bali’s economy collapsed as it is too dependent on tourism.”
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