After being shuttered for 17 months, the upmarket Hujan Locale restaurant in the Balinese town of Ubud is slowly coming back to life.
Outside, staff greet a box truck driver who delivers fresh vegetables and stacks of lemongrass, ginger flowers and kaffir lime leaves. Kitchen workers are busy preparing for the day ahead. A chandelier above a stairway is once again casting a warm yellow shimmer across the walls.
Before the pandemic, Hujan Locale was a thriving business that served local dishes – including bebek goreng, Balinese fried duck with mango chilli sauce, and tongseng kambing, central Java’s slow-braised lamb wrapped in cabbage – to foreign tourists. Covid, and a ban on foreign travellers introduced late March 2020, destroyed its income. The restaurant used to employ 50 staff members; now there are just 15.
There are, however, some signs of hope.
On Thursday, Bali is due to reopen to travellers from several countries including China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates. Visitors will be required to follow certain regulations – they need to be fully vaccinated and take two PCR tests, both before their flight and on arrival. They will also need to quarantine. Initially, officials said people must do so for eight days on arrival, but a last minute announcement this week reduced the requirement to five days.
“Everyone’s been waiting for this. Tourism is the backbone of Bali,” said Hujan Locale’s manager, Kadek Miharjaya.
Bali, Indonesia’s main tourism hotspot, drew more than 6 million travellers in 2019. But since the start of the pandemic, the streets in Ubud, which would normally be filled with tourists, have been empty. Many businesses are closed, and the area is peppered with “for rent” signs.
The plan to partially reopen Bali is a first step towards reviving the tourism industry, which contributes more than 50% of the island’s income, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation.
‘We do not want backpackers’
The pandemic has prompted a debate about the role of tourism in Bali, with some arguing the island should become less dependent on the sector and instead develop other areas of the economy. Reports of foreign tourists who remained on the island during the pandemic but refused to follow health protocols has added to such sentiments. This week, Bali’s governor said that tourism had benefited “a handful of people, especially foreign investors”, but not the general public. He said he instead planned to promote areas such as cultural crafts, agriculture and fisheries.
Government officials have spoken of the need to alter the tourism sector to focus on attracting “quality” tourists. Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, said last month that the authorities would “filter” tourists. “We do not want backpackers,” he said.
Bali Tourism Agency head I Putu Astawa says the island is hoping to receive travellers who will spend more money, stay longer and have a better attitude.
He pointed to foreigners who have not complied with Covid guidelines, who have abused their tourist visas by working illegally, or broken the law in other ways. “Those are parasites that we need to put in order and keep an eye on,” Putu Astawa said.
Bali has fully vaccinated 80% of the eligible population, according to president Joko Widodo – ahead of much of the country. Cases have fallen from a peak of 1000 a day in July. On Monday, there were 37 new cases and seven deaths.
Many residents who work in tourism say they aren’t expecting a boost in business any time soon. Some worry that few tourists will want to undergo quarantine. Others fear the government strategy, which seems to focus on attracting the wealthiest visitors, will only benefit certain types of businesses.
“What about smaller businesses such as homestays? Who’s going to stay there?” said Kadek Kerta Yasa, 33. He used to work as a resort manager in Ubud and, at one point, could make 10m rupiah ($700) a month. As the pandemic hit the island, the resort eventually closed for business and he began to work as a moto-taxi driver for ride-hailing firm Grab. He is married with two children, including a baby born during the pandemic, but now can only make about 50,000 rupiah ($3.50) a day. The minimum wage in Bali in 2021 is about 2.5m rupiah ($175) a month.
“Travellers from middle classes will find it difficult to afford quarantines,” Yasa said. “Many foreigners who come here for honeymoons are not exactly rich people. In fact, rich people rarely tipped – based on my experience.”
Yasa hopes the government will stop referring to “quality tourists” altogether. “Those with more money can also do crime and disrespect the island. What’s more important is the law enforcement,” he said.
Arie Yuniarti, 43, who is originally from Surabaya, East Java, and worked as a travel consultant in Sanur, Bali, is also feeling pessimistic. “I don’t want to get my hopes up,” said Arie. She has since opened a small grocery store.
“Only people who really, really need to come to Indonesia who will come to Bali,” she said. She agrees that, given the barriers to tourism, there are other sectors that should be developed. “But it will require brilliant ideas and time to change the mindset of the people,” she added.
Many of the staff at Hujan Locale resorted to other means to make ends meet – from selling snacks online to returning to their villages to become farmers.
Miharjaya said the restaurant has had virtually no income since the start of the pandemic. Management could only just manage to pay for the remaining staff members’ universal healthcare.
“[Staff] lived without a monthly salary, but we tried to at least cover their insurance including their families’ insurance as well,” Miharjaya said.
Back at the restaurant, which reopened on 1 October, a trickle of customers slowly arrive through the doors. “I can’t believe this place is open again. I was so sure they would be out of business and never coming back [after] a year-and-a-half closed,” said one diner, Jared Collins, an artist from New York.
But as it is for many businesses in Bali, Hujan Locale’s future is uncertain. Before the pandemic it would serve as many as 100 diners each day. Since reopening, it typically attracts between 10 and 20 people. “We’re still in a grey area whether we’ll open long term or short term,” said Miharjaya.