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Tourists Gone, Bali Workers Return to Farms and Fishing

Villa Sidemen and Mt Agung, Sidemen, East Bali, January 2018

Many resort workers in Bali have gone home to villages and small towns, taking up traditional ways of earning a living to feed themselves and their families.

LALANGLINGGAH VILLAGE, Indonesia — Ni Nyoman Ayu Sutaryani, a mother of three, made a steady living for two decades working as a masseuse and yoga instructor at Bali’s luxury hotels and spas. Now at 37 she finds herself back on the farm of her childhood village here, standing precariously at the top of a tall bamboo ladder, picking cloves.

It is not the life that Ms. Ayu had imagined for herself. But on Bali, which depends heavily on tourism, she is one of thousands of workers who have been forced by the coronavirus pandemic to return to their villages and traditional ways of making a living.

“This is my first time being jobless, and sometimes I want to cry,” Ms. Ayu said. “Everything is returning to the old time. That’s what we have to do rather than starving.”

Like Ms. Ayu, many have returned to their family farms, helping to plant and harvest crops. Others feed their families by digging for clams in shallow Benoa Bay or by casting fishing lines out to sea from one of Bali’s deserted beaches.

In a sign of how far the economy of the Indonesian island has declined, some rural residents have turned to bartering fruit and vegetables so that they can save their limited cash to buy necessities.

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Bali, with a population of 4.4 million and eight times the physical size of Singapore, is Indonesia’s tourism engine, boasting spectacular beaches, terraced rice fields, scenic temples and ideal weather. Largely Hindu in a predominantly Muslim nation, Bali carved out its own identity as a tourist destination decades ago and was once widely viewed from abroad as an independent country. Hoping to capitalize on the Bali name, the central government began a campaign last year to create 10 “new Bali” destinations.

More than half of Bali’s economy depends directly on tourism, and a quarter is engaged in tourism-related activities, such as transporting visitors and supplying food to hotels and restaurants. Last year, Bali attracted more than six million tourists from abroad and 10 million from Indonesia.

The number of hotels keeps growing; some international chains operate more than two dozen. President Trump has gotten in on the act, partnering with a politically connected billionaire to build a Trump-branded hotel and golf resort.

In March, Indonesia banned foreign visitors from the worst-hit countries and, weeks later, extended the ban to all foreign tourists. In May, the government banned domestic tourists from traveling to Bali, although officials and business travelers with a negative coronavirus test were allowed.

Nevertheless, Indonesia has surpassed China in the number of cases to become the country hit hardest in East Asia, with more than 88,000 cases and 4,200 deaths as of Monday. On Bali, the number of cases has doubled, to 2,781, and deaths have quadrupled, to 44, in a little more than three weeks.

The travel restrictions have slammed Bali’s tourism industry. During the first half of the year, the island received 1.1 million foreign tourists, almost all of them before the pandemic. That was a drop from nearly 2.9 million during the same period last year. Comparative figures for domestic tourists were not available.

Impatient to revive the economy, Bali’s governor, I Wayan Koster, began gradually reopening the island this month, including restaurants and popular beaches. He hopes to bring back domestic tourists to Bali starting next week and attract foreign tourists beginning Sept. 11.

For a generation, young people have been drawn from villages in northern Bali to work in the tourist centers, mainly in southern Bali. Many attend tourism vocational schools before taking jobs in hotels, restaurants and tour agencies.

“Tourism has become the dominant work for most people,” said Ricky Putra, chairman of the Bali Hotels Association.

The pandemic has forced hotels and other tourist facilities to lay off some workers and cut the pay and hours of others. Larger hotels have kept skeleton staffs on duty, rotating workers in for a week or two at a time, while allowing them to make a little money and return to their villages.

“Mostly they are going back to their villages,” said Mr. Ricky, who is also general manager of the Santrian Resorts and Villas hotel group. “Some of them can use this very challenging time to help their parents and go back to their village farming or fishing.”

One local leader, Dewa Komang Yudi, said he welcomed the return of tourism workers to his community, Tembok Village, in far northern Bali. He said that about 400 unemployed workers — waiters, spa employees, drivers and cook’s helpers — had returned to the village of 7,000 and were growing food on land that had been fallow for lack of workers. He hopes many will stay permanently.

“Deurbanization suddenly occurred because of the pandemic,” he said. “There are more people now in north Bali than in south Bali because many of them returned to their villages. This is what we have been dreaming about.”

Mr. Yudi, 33, who himself attended a tourism academy and used to work as a hotel butler, said Bali should devote more resources to farming, a more sustainable enterprise. Instead, it has become overly reliant on tourism.

“People are depending on it like opium,” he said. “Tourism is fragile, and we have gone too far. We have been abandoning the fundamental things that mobilize the economy.”

Across the island, some communities give food aid to the unemployed, such as rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and sugar. But recipients say it is not enough to live on. Many also have debts, like installment payments for motorbikes, a common mode of transportation on the island.

From the top of a homemade ladder, Ms. Ayu could see the beach and the forest, and feel a gentle breeze flowing in from the Bali Strait. “I feel serene,” she said during a break in picking. “In the city, it is crowded. Having this activity calms my mind.”

More important, the return to traditional village life has reunited relatives who usually see one another only on important holidays.

“I earn more working in tourism,” Ms. Ayu said. “But on the positive side, God has given us this situation so we can be with our families.”

This article from the New York Times…

Nyimas Laula reported from Lalanglinggah Village, Indonesia, and Richard C. Paddock from Bangkok. Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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Comments 1

  1. Great article. Great sadness for the economic devastation of the overly tourist oriented and reliant economy. But the flip side is a return to basics and family and traditional village life and agriculture. As someone who loves Bali dearly, I pray for them that when things settle down a better balance will emerge.

    And along with the great article, as always great photographs and portraits by Lorrie to place the words in a visual context.

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