‘Bali is not only about tourism’: Covid-19 prompts rethink for island’s residents

Ni Kadek Erawati, 40, used to work in a villa in her village, Tegallalang, a Balinese district famous for its Instagram-able rice terraces.

But in March, her employer asked her to take a break until further notice. Her husband is unemployed and she needs to pay school fees for three children, but the only job she could find was working on a farm.

Villagers in Tembok harvest vegetables at a collective farm.
Villagers in Tembok harvest vegetables at a collective farm. Photograph: supplied

When the Guardian visited Era, she was harvesting in a rice field with a group of farmers. Her payment each day is one bucket of unhulled rice. During the harvest she stops and complains about the heat: “I have never worked in the rice field like this before. It’s sweltering.”

Like many of Balinese women, Era has no land. Bali’s patrilineal kinship system means only men inherit property.

The custom has made it easier for some of the men who have also had to return to rural areas. I Gede Tinaya, 36, was left 1.5 ha of land in Kintamani, North Bali, by his parents, so when his .15-year tour guide business collapsed due to the pandemic, he moved back to the village and started farming. He now grows red onions and has earned 60m rupiah ($US4,135) after three months.

In common with a growing number of Balinese, the pandemic has made him think more about whether he wants to return to working in the tourism industry and its reliance on foreign visitors. Some Balinese think the island would be better off developing other sectors of its economy instead.

“In the past, we thought that tourism is our basic income. But I have learned that Bali is not only about tourism. The agricultural business also can provide life support only if we want to work hard and explore the real potential in our island,” he says.

Many Balinese people lost their livelihoods when the island was closed to outsiders at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Home to four million people, Bali is Indonesia’s tourist centre, contributing 50% of the country’s income from the tourism industry or US$10bn annually. About six million travellers visited the island in 2019. The vast growth of the tourism industry has transformed it from an agricultural province to a prime holiday destination popular with travellers from the UK to Australia.

The island has been hit by intractable economic crises before, from the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in 2oo2, to the eruption of Mount Agung in 2017. But the coronavirus pandemic has rocked the tourism industry more profoundly.

The island had recorded 3,249 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 48 fatalities. Dr I Gusti Agung Ngurah Anom, chairman of Indonesia Doctors Association in Denpasar, Bali’s capital, has warned that the city’s isolation beds are fully occupied.

According to Indonesia’s central bank, almost all parts of the Balinese economy have deteriorated this year, with the exception of agriculture. The sector’s performance was predicted to show another improvement in the June quarter as Bali entered the harvest period.

‘Bali returns to zero’

Dwitra J Ariana, a young Balinese farmer and filmmaker, noticed that many of his neighbours who work in the city were heading back to his village in Bangli to work the land.

“My wife, who recruits workers for our farm, used to find it difficult to get workers. But now, we can find many,” said Dwitra, who owns Mupubati farm. He has recruited five former villa and hotel workers since the pandemic began.

He says that many Balinese had seen their home in a new light. “Bali returns to zero. We have never experienced this before, and it prompted a new realisation that the island is not as fragile as people think. Even though the tourism sector has collapsed, Balinese are not going to starve.”

One village that has helped people find work is Tembok. Headed by Dewa Komang Yuda Astara, Tembok developed a collective farming industry to provide a social safety net for its residents.

The village has a population of more than 7,000, and almost half of its residents used to work in the city – mostly in the tourism sector. But the village has managed to re-employ many of them in jobs such as cleaning the beach, monitoring the garbage, farming, food production, health and delivery work.

“The pandemic likely will not end in a short time. So, therefore, we plan to manage another two hectares to open a collective farm,” Dewa said.

A worker cleans chairs for rent as beaches reopen in Bali.
A worker cleans chairs for rent as beaches reopen in Bali. Photograph: Firdia Lisnawati/AP

The provincial government has announced that Bali will reopen to international tourists in September. The island will become Jakarta’s pilot project to relaunch tourism with a “new normal” health protocol. “Bali’s recovery is important for the national and regional tourism industry,” Bali’s governor Wayan Koster told the media.

Many Balinese are optimistic that the island is ready to reopen. But others such as Gede questioned the plan.

“In my opinion, we need to solve the Covid-19 problem first, so that we can feel secure. In the meantime, we can explore the other potential sectors,” he said. He plans to have two jobs after the pandemic. “I am not going to go back to work in tourism full time. Maybe 50/50. I will keep the farming job.”

Era, in common with many lower-income women on the island, doesn’t have much choice. She is hoping that the region will reopen soon. “If I don’t have money in September, I am not going to be able to celebrate [the Balinese holiday of] Galungan day. But also I am afraid of being exposed to coronavirus,” she said while touching her forehead. “I have a headache now.”