That familiar whiff of incense tangoing with humidity welcomed me back as I entered Bali’s international airport. Momentarily, the cloud of unprecedented communal grief due to COVID-19 vanished, and everything felt—dare I say?—normal, reminiscent of my prior six visits. But a masked immigration official questioning me about the purpose of my arrival brought me back to reality.
It was late December 2020. After thoroughly assessing risks with my husband, family members, and even my general practitioner, I decided to temporarily relocate to Indonesia’s Island of the Gods on a business visa to report as a travel journalist. I skittishly boarded my first flight in nine months, negative-PCR test and a copy of my travel insurance in hand. I splurged points on a Qatar Airways business class ticket to maximize social-distancing protocols for the 23-hour journey.
As predicted, of course, this visit would be far from typical—my carry-on was encumbered not with excess sunscreen but with mini sanitizers. My travel itinerary consisted of a self-imposed two-week quarantine instead of the usual packed, perpetual adventure.
What I would never have predicted, however, was that my flight, albeit quite empty, would be one of the last possible options for foreign tourists to enter Indonesia. Due to rising COVID cases domestically, the country stopped issuing any new foreign visas just two days after my arrival. Even my husband, who was planning on joining me early in the new year, was suddenly barred from entry. Bali, notoriously spotlit on the world stage as the most popular island destination with 16.11 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2019, now had no more than 7,000 foreigners. And, as timing would have it, I was one of them.
From Overtourism to No Tourism
To say Bali is popular is a severe understatement. In fact, some would say overtourism is the island’s most significant obstacle.
Ironically, Fodor’s itself deemed Bali one of the tourist destinations to reconsider for 2020. The Fodor’s No List 2020, published in late 2019—just months before the word “pandemic” became integral to our communal vocabulary—cites Bali’s waste management issues, water scarcity, and cultural misappropriation by tourists as compelling arguments for why not to visit. Bali’s Achilles heel is its global magnetism, and as of early 2020, tourism accounted for almost 80 percent of Bali’s GDP, directly and indirectly.
Bali sans tourists: an unfathomable concept 15 months ago was now the stark reality for an island rooted in hospitality.
And then the pandemic hit. Responding to global health uncertainty, Indonesia closed its borders initially in March 2020, which resulted in a staggering drop in tourism arrivals—1.05 million total in 2020—and the paralyzation of a hospitality-based economy. Bali sans tourists: an unfathomable concept 15 months ago was now the stark reality for an island rooted in hospitality.
A Tale of Two Balis
Two weeks into my stay, as I cautiously began exploring outside my quarantine quarters at a suite at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, and I was aghast.
I had severely underestimated the dire everyday consequences a lack of tourism would have for the island’s people. Two years prior, I ventured to Bali’s Niagara Munduk waterfall, a 50-foot spectacle of nature’s omnipotence, to find it was already buzzing with crowds, Instagram influencers, and a cacophony of foreign languages.
And here we are today. The roads are not packed with motorcyclists entwining through traffic. The notorious waiting times at Lempuyang Temple, a.k.a. The Gates of Heaven, the ancient prayer site turned commercialized Instagram phenomenon, have dwindled from hours pre-pandemic to mere minutes. That booked-solid massage parlor that couldn’t squeeze me in for an appointment in 2019? Boarded up. Local entrepreneurs who had previously relied on tourism have had to adapt swiftly and creatively.
Pre-COVID, I remember momentarily forgetting I wasn’t in North America while strolling down the once-dynamic Monkey Forest Street, Ubud’s central hub of international bars, restaurants, and boutique clothing shops. Today, this same road is living up to its name, with cheeky primates almost apocalyptically reclaiming their urban jungle.
Welcome to ‘70s Bali
My Balinese tour guide and friend, Pande, summed it up perfectly: “It’s like Bali when I was a kid. Like the ’70s.” Pande had been employed as a freelance driver for hotels before the pandemic. Like the vast majority of locals, his income vanished once international borders shuttered. When I hired Pande, I was looking for both a little guidance and a way to participate in a tourism industry that had been financially devastated. To no one’s surprise, the unique perspective and experience of a local guide proved invaluable.
Pande’s nostalgic commentary instantly transported me to his childhood, growing up with nine siblings and rice farming parents in a Hindu household in Ubud’s center. He wistfully recounted darting around the rice fields after class with his friends, practicing his gamelan (traditional Indonesian percussion instrument), and gazing up at the brilliance of stars illuminating an island with scarce light pollution.
When exploring Ubud, I asked Pande if the few bules (Indonesian for “Western tourist”) out and about reminded him of his childhood here. He chuckled and told me that it took until he was in junior high school to see a “white person” outside of television. His response surprised me. Were we talking about the same Ubud—portrayed, at least superficially on social media, as Bali’s cultural and spiritual center welcoming yogis, healers, and avocado-toast-aficionados from around the world?!
Many of Pande’s acquaintances who’d previously worked in hospitality have now, out of necessity, returned to their rural birth villages to farm and harvest rice. Between this mass exodus of locals and the international border closures preventing Lulu-clad yogis from roaming the towns, Ubud has shifted throughout the pandemic.
Pande and I enjoy our daily walks in Ubud, past Balinese children squealing and kicking around a ball in the middle of a once-busy intersection while pet chickens bobble about and the street dogs dozing in the sun. One day, as a smile escapes his lips, I ask him, rather vaguely, if he’s happy. “It’s scary now,” he responds. “No idea when my job will come back. But I like seeing my home as I remembered it again. I never thought I’d see this again.”
Bali Is a Social Distancing Haven
Before traveling to Bali, while quarantined in my compact urban apartment throughout Denmark’s second lockdown, I fantasized about ditching congestion and motorbiking through the lush Balinese hills that tease views of the dramatic Indian Ocean below. Amid Bali’s general desolation throughout the pandemic, Canggu, Bali’s digital-nomad hub, largely remained bustling. Considering south Bali is where some Western ex-pats have gotten into rifts with Indonesian police officers for blatantly disregarding the mandatory mask rule, I hightailed it to the island’s more remote side as often as possible.
Even pre-COVID, I’d heard that Bali’s unspoiled west coast, about three hours from the more populated south and only accessible by few meandering roads, was worth the trek. Visiting during an international lockdown, I spent three entire days zigzagging solo through local villages and hiking through misty rainforests before ever encountering another foreigner. You won’t find a high-rise hotel or branded resort in northwest Bali. Instead, properties like Sumberkima Hill naturally cater to social distancing, with modern villas nestled in the hillside.
Another Bali nook where nature reigns is Sideman Valley, a largely untouristed paradise an hour east of Ubud. Picture this: Hiking through the region’s verdant valleys, meandering the bubbling Telaga Waja river on rafts, and soaking in the plunge pools adjacent to sprawling rice fields at Samanvaya Luxury Resort. Along with pausing to absorb the might of Mount Agung, an active volcano that dominates the landscape, social distancing is not only effortless here—it’s also pleasurable!
Even when returning to congested southern Bali, I found pockets of space. I treated myself to an expansive villa at Uluwatu Surf Villas, where I had private, front-row access to the sunsets over Uluwatu’s famed 300-foot whitestone cliffs, without the crowds that are often synonymous with the nightly spectacle.
Until Next Time, Mama Bali
I stretch my legs and adjust my mask in my Qatar Airways seat, Copenhagen-bound. Somehow simultaneously antsy and liberated, a phone buzz reunites me with reality. My time in Bali throughout a global pandemic will likely never be recreated. For a brief moment, an island once synonymous with overtourism has had a moment to breathe.
With its global magnetism, Bali’s gradual reopening plan is center stage. One unique aspect of Indonesia’s current reopening plan is prioritizing vaccinations for tourism front liners, which will help establish COVID-free “green zones” that are fully operational. Indonesia’s eventual complete reopening hinges on the vast majority of its citizens becoming vaccinated.
But what will tourism look like moving forward? Is this Bali’s rebirth? How will tourists interact with Bali? How will Bali interact with tourists?
My thoughts are interrupted by the cabin crew preparing for takeoff. As our plane departs, I watch the island’s coastline melt into the horizon until all I see is a concoction of blues fading into the abyss. Until next time, Mama Bali.