Indonesian authorities hope that the return of Chinese visitors marks the beginning of the end of the island’s long COVID-19 recession.
A lion dancer welcomes Chinese tourists upon their arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, Sunday, January 22, 2023.
Credit: AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati
The Indonesian island of Bali received its first direct flight from China in almost three years yesterday, marking the possible end of the economically destructive COVID-19 hiatus on the resort island. According to The Associated Press, at least 210 people they were aboard the chartered plane operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air, which was flying from Shenzhen in Guangdong province.
The flight followed the Chinese government’s decision to lift travel restrictions effective Jan. 8, raising hopes that Southeast Asia’s once-vibrant tourism economies will recover in time for the New Year holidays. New Lunar this week, when many Chinese citizens venture abroad.
While Indonesia as a whole is not as dependent on tourism as other nations in the region, particularly Thailand, few regions in Southeast Asia are as dependent as Bali. Tourism contributes about 5 percent of Indonesia’s economy (compared to 20 percent for Thailand), but some 80 percent Bali.
As with most of Southeast Asia, China had become an important part of this story. Before COVID-19, more than 2 million tourists from China visited Indonesia, and China had become the main source of tourists to Bali. But all direct flights from mainland China to Denpasar were halted in the first half of 2020 as COVID-19 began its deadly global spread, with devastating impacts on the island’s tourism-dependent economy.
In 2019, the year before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, 6.9 million foreigners visited Bali; in 2021 it welcomed just 50. Thus, Bali’s recession was much worse than that of the country as a whole: the island’s economy contracted 9.3 percent in 2020, compared to Indonesia’s 2 percent recession. As borders were sealed, tens of thousands of tourism workers lost their jobs or were forced to take unpaid leave.
The past year has brought a degree of respite. In March 2022, after nearly two years of being locked down to foreign visitors, Indonesia began quarantine-free entry to the resort island for vaccinated foreigners. In 2022, 2.1 million international visitors it arrived in Bali by air, with Australian and Indian tourists leading the revival.
At the same time, the persistence of China’s “zero COVID” policy hampered Bali’s economy. According to the AP report, Indonesia is aiming 255,000 tourists from China this year, after registering 94,924 visits from China from January to October last year. The fact that the government has such relatively modest expectations suggests that, for all the optimism about a quick China-led rebound, the full recovery of Bali’s tourism economy and that of Southeast Asia as a whole could take some time.
In order to attract more visitors from China, the Indonesian authorities are considering opening direct flights from three major cities in China, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Bali tourism officials have already spoken out about their intention to focus their attention on attracting high-income Chinese tourists instead of large group tour packages.