Some nicknames resonate more aptly than others. Bali, an Indonesian island located in the Java Sea, flawlessly lives up to its nickname: “Island of the Gods”. Sculpted by thick jungle forests that juxtapose seaside cliffs, brimming with enchanting temples that cradle the past’s stories and saturated with sunlight warming buzzing beaches, it’s no wonder Bali has topped destination wish lists since its tourism boom in the 1960s.
This popularity has led to overtourism in recent years, resulting in the destination facing waste management, infrastructure development and environmental problems such as pollution and water scarcity. This culminated in Bali earning a spot on “Fodor’s No List” for 2020 travel, published in November 2019.
Little did Fodor’s — or anyone for that matter — anticipate how real that list would soon become.
The Covid-19 pandemic devastated Bali, an economy based primarily on serviced-based hospitality. A total of 4.02 million people visited the island in 2020, a staggering 75% drop from 2019’s 16.11 million. This makes sense considering Indonesia swiftly shut its borders in March 2020 due to the uncertainty of a global health calamity.
But how does an island ingrained in tourism survive — and thrive — following the Covid-19 pandemic? Bali’s tourism rebirth will not only be pivotal to the island’s future but, with its global magnetism, will take center stage. Hoteliers on the ground share how they foresee Bali’s travel trends evolving in the aftermath of a world in crisis.
Indonesia’s gradual reopening
While Indonesian tourism officials cannot predict the future, it seems plausible that the country’s reopening hinges upon its citizens becoming vaccinated to promote the health of all involved.
“It’s worth noting that although the Indonesian government is not issuing Tourist Visas or Visas on Arrival to enter the country at this time, foreigners have been able to enter the country since August 2020 through Indonesia’s e-Visa programme, provided they show proof of a recent negative PCR test,” explained Leo Maxam, marketing manager of Uluwatu Surf Villas. “We had several waves of international guests coming from outside Indonesia to stay with us and get in on the remarkably uncrowded tourism season in Bali during the back end of 2020.”
Maxam foresees a gradual restart to tourism in Bali in 2021, with Indonesia opening tourist arrivals in stages to countries that have successfully immunised enough of their citizens to contain the virus.
“Arrivals would be limited to visitors from these ‘green list’ countries who can show proof of Covid-19 immunisation or negative PCR test results within a certain number of days of travel,” he hypothesised.
He also anticipates potential new requirements for the initial “first wave” of post-pandemic tourists — a minimum length of stay, proof of financial capital and spending power, etc — similar criteria required by some countries that have issued temporary-stay permits.
“If the government is going to take the risk, however minimal, of a gradual reopening, it wants to ensure these tourists will provide significant value to stimulate Bali’s economy,” Maxam said. “We foresee a new ‘lower volume, higher value’ model of tourism for Bali. No more catering to large foreign tour groups and operators. There is a better risk-to-reward ratio for gearing tourism arrivals to individuals and small groups of travellers seeking higher-end accommodation, seclusion and to leave a smaller travel footprint.”
Maxam hopes that the new model would also reduce the environmental impact of the previous high-volume, low-dollar tourism model.
Focus will be on less-developed areas
Globally, tourism experts predict that post-Covid-19 travellers will crave authentic experiences that highlight culture and nature. Lisa Davidsson, a Swede whose infatuation with Bali’s remote nature propelled her to open Coconut Corner Boutique Hotel & Retreats — a boutique eco-resort on the western coast — four years ago, agrees.
“[Tourists] want to get out of their apartments and sedentary desk jobs, especially after a year in lockdown,” she said. “People will look for smaller, more remote accommodations with access to nature and beaches that are less crowded than what you find in traditionally popular areas such as Seminyak, Kuta and Bingin.”
Davidsson predicts that pockets of Bali’s uncharted nature will start seeing more development, such as the southwestern coast, where her resort is located snugly between a jungle and remote beach.
“The pristine views from the [resort’s] treehouse are something travellers receive when they choose to move away from the more developed areas, giving up easy access to some creature comforts in exchange for a more authentic and pristine side of Bali,” she said.
She also anticipates the popularity of smaller mountain villages, where intrepid explorers can access great jungle treks and unspoiled nature.
In addition to escaping crowded tourist spots, Maxam believes spacious properties will be desired. For example, Uluwatu Surf Villas, which consists of 16 private villas spread over 1.6 hectares, was built with low-density construction and a green open-space ethos at its core.
“Our primary customer is already the high-net-worth traveller seeking a sense of adventure and wilderness, the antithesis of a massive resort complex that packs in hundreds of rooms,” he said.
Travellers will crave local experiences
Between its verdant rice fields, panoramic rolling hills, tropical forests and authentic temples, time slows down when travellers explore Sidemen Valley, an area in East Bali that’s also been relatively untouched by mass tourism. Tracey Calder, owner and manager of Sideman Valley’s Samanvaya Luxury Resort and Spa, anticipates that guests will crave unique and serene experiences when the borders open.
“Samanvaya is currently creating a new tour booklet that will showcase local, non-touristy experiences for guests to enjoy during their time within the region, getting closer to the people, communities and culture that authentic Bali offers,” she said. “The aim is to ensure that visitors don’t just see things, but can feel these experiences too.”
Aligning with this desire to travel more consciously post-pandemic, Samanvaya has also created The Mindful Travel Collective.
“Focusing on luxury, sustainable travel throughout Indonesia, itineraries can be designed specifically to meet travellers’ unique requirements,” Calder said. “Having lived and travelled here for years, [we] understand what most travellers will want post-pandemic, can provide off-the-beaten-track recommendations, and have a very hands-on approach with guests ensuring their accommodation, activities and eating experiences exceed expectations.”
Like many industries, Bali’s tourism industry must remain responsive to the ever-changing ethos of a post-pandemic world. But certainly, both the well-travelled and novice explorer will discover opportunities and destinations throughout Bali that will delight and inspire them.