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Wed 28 October 2020
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CJ Werleman considers the impact of the Coronavirus on tourism and how this may be one crisis too many for Bali to recover from.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis but an economic crisis and no industry has been hit harder than those dependent on international tourism, including airlines, cruise liners, car rental companies, hotels, restaurants, and on-the-ground tour operators. The virus threatens to kill or irrevocably transform our favourite international destinations in ways that remain unfathomable, at least for now.

While much of what follows could be said of any of the world’s best-loved exotic destinations, the idyllic Indonesian island of Bali is faced with a particularly grim future – one that holds the likelihood of ruin, starvation, crime and violence. This loosely made forecast is based on the island’s over-sized dependence on tourism, political distance from the central government in Jakarta, broken civilian infrastructure and Bali’s bloody history.

Nearly all of the island’s four million population is directly or indirectly dependent on tourism, a reality emphasised by the fact that nearly 85% of Bali’s gross domestic product flows from the wallets of those arriving at Ngurah Rai International Airport – a port of entry that’s now closed off to all but arriving government officials, humanitarian workers and permanent residents.

“All of us in the [tourism] industry are really struggling right now, what we’re waiting for is for this pandemic to end,” I Ketut Ardana, head of Bali’s branch of the Indonesian National Organisation for Tours and Travel (ASITA), told Australia’s ABC News.

Unfortunately for Bali, and the rest of the world, COVID-19 is crisis without a foreseeable end. It’s more than likely that social distancing measures and government-imposed lockdowns will be a feature of our lives for the next 12-18 months or until a vaccine is widely available. But, while a preventative cure would bring a sudden end to our stay-at-home orders, it won’t create an instant demand for international travel, given that foreign destinations such as Bali won’t be on the minds of Australians, Europeans, Americans, Brits and Asians who’ve only recently escaped death, financial ruin or both.

Great Depression-level unemployment rates, depleted savings accounts, mass bankruptcies, costly funeral services, and a 30 to 50% depreciation in property values don’t generate high demand for pool-side cocktails at international 4-5 star resorts. Deprivation is our new normal, which for Bali means an unrecoverable devastation.

Bali was my home for more than a decade, after moving there from Australia shortly after the 2002 Bali bombings, so I witnessed how quickly and stoically the island bounced back from the terrorist attack that followed in 2005, and the global financial crisis of 2009. But it is impossible to foresee how it will come back from this.

A newly published study by the University of Indonesia projects that the country could see more than 240,000 deaths in the next 30 days alone. There are only four doctors for every 10,000 people and fewer than three intensive care beds per 100,000. There’s a real possibility that more than half of Bali’s four million residents will become infected with the virus.

The Balinese don’t have a government welfare system to fall back on. Most live pay-check to pay-check. Household savings and even bank accounts are a luxury most have never experienced. The healthcare system is a tragic punch line and much of the Government’s $40 billion stimulus package will be siphoned off by cronies and insiders, like all financial assistance packages are. The money will barely make its way out of central Jakarta, let alone reach an island that lies more than an hour’s flight to the east.

Desperation and starvation is close at hand. A total breakdown of law and order will come fast and ferocious, with foreigners the likely initial target.


Xenophobia and Scapegoats

South east Asian countries are particularly vulnerable to xenophobic conspiracy theories, but Bali has a track record of this – particularly false narratives that blame the foreign or ‘other’ for the island’s misfortune or mismanagement.

When hundreds of thousands of tonnes of trash wash up on Bali’s beaches, the locals blame neighboring Java. When the island is hit with a sudden crime wave, the locals blame Javanese day workers. Sinophobic conspiracies that contend that Chinese Indonesians control the Government, media and wealth roll of the tongue as commonly as anti-Semitic conspiracies at a far-right rally in Europe. 

When Indonesia’s currency collapsed in 1998, along with every other domination in the Asian region, Chinese Indonesian citizens were scapegoated, leaving hundreds murdered and thousands of their homes and businesses destroyed. When Suharto weaponised anti-Chinese/Communist conspiracies after the foiled Communist Party (PKI) coup of October 1965, more than a million Chinese people and suspected communists, atheists, and leftists were murdered over the next several months.

“Some of the victims were shot, some were bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit,” observes Robert Manne, the legendary Australian commentator and Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University. “Some were beheaded. Mass graves littered the Indonesian archipelago. Rivers were bloated with corpses. Travellers reported seeing heads on pikestaffs by roadsides.”

Bali was notable for the fact that, unlike the rest of the country, the Indonesian military (TNI) wasn’t required to lead or incite the violence, with rival villages viewing the anti-communist purge as an opportunity to settle old scores and rid the island of evil. In little more than a month, roughly 100,000 Balinese were hacked to death by their fellow citizens – a death toll that represented 5% of the island’s then population. The speed and ferocity of the violence left even the most hardened Indonesian military commander stunned. 

“From the very beginning the political upheaval had an air of irrationality, a touch of madness even,” wrote Dan Moser in a 1967 article titled The Rivers Ran Crimson from Butchery. “Nowhere but on these weird and lovely islands… could affairs erupt so unpredictably, so violently, tinged not only with fanaticism but with blood-lust and something like witch-craft.”

As the human and economic cost of the COVID-19 crisis mounts in Bali, political entrepreneurs could easily invoke similar “irrationality” and “madness” by exploiting jealousies and anxieties that have long simmered beneath the surface, many of which have become exacerbated during Bali’s stunning tourism-led economic boom during the past decade or so, as the gap between wealth and poverty has become defined by proximity to the foreigner. 

With xenophobic conspiracies flying around, and as fear and anxiety around the Coronavirus peaks, it is likely that those who are perceived to have benefitted from the tourism boom – both locals and immigrants – will become targets of crime, discrimination and xenophobic political discourse, which will further undo Bali’s hard fought reputation as one of the world’s premier global destinations.

COVID-19 threatens our societies at multiple layers. Certainly, an unprecedented crisis makes predicting the future impossible as there is nothing in our history books that offers a reliable foretelling of what the next six months to two years could hold. The Spanish Flu of 1918 predated our globalised and interdependent economies, while SARS, MERS, Ebola and Swine Flu were each successfully contained.

But the story that is being told of Bali at this moment is the same that will most likely be retold in two, five and 10 years from now – one of catastrophe and ruin. Nothing about the lands we inhabit and visit will remain unchanged.


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