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Indonesia wants to ban backpackers from Bali, but will a focus on ‘quality’ tourists pay off?

Despite the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is still focused on quality over quantity when it comes to its tourist destinations – as evinced by a senior official’s recent remark that backpackers would be banned from Bali when the resort island reopens to foreigners.

Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, made the comment on Sept 10 when he visited Bali, adding that the island’s reopening would be “conducted carefully and in phases”.

“We will filter tourists that visit,” he said. “We do not want backpackers, so that Bali [remains] clean, and the tourists who come here are of quality.”

Luhut told reporters in a virtual news briefing on Friday (Sept 17) that the government was confident Bali could reopen in October if Covid-19 cases continued to decline.

“With a trend [of declining cases] like today, we are quite confident, but again we have to look at [the situation on a weekly basis]. We can’t take it for granted,” he said, responding to a question from This Week in Asia, though he stopped short of clarifying whether backpackers would be allowed entry when the resort island reopened.

Indonesia on Friday recorded 3,835 new infections and 219 deaths, well below the daily average of 40,000 cases during the peak of the second wave in July.

Health minister Budi Sadikin on Tuesday told Reuters that Indonesia was aiming to inoculate 70 per cent of its target population of 208 million with at least one dose by November, so it could start accepting foreign tourists again.

In a bid to clarify Luhut’s remarks, his spokesperson Jodi Mahardi on Tuesday told local news portal Kompas that the minister did not mean to pigeonhole backpackers.

“[He meant that] the country will not allow the entry of foreigners who break health protocols, law, or immigration law,” Jodi said.

This is not the first time Indonesian officials have expressed their frustration with foreign backpackers amid long-standing hopes to turn the country into an exclusive tourist destination.

In September 2019, the environment ministry and East Nusa Tenggara governor Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat sought introduce a US$1,000 (S$1,300) annual membership system for visits to Komodo Island, home to the Komodo dragon, in a bid to reduce tourist numbers to protect the animal and its habitat.

The previous entry was around US$10, but that July the governor said the island needed to be closed to visitors as tourism had interfered with the dragons’ mating and hatching processes.

The Komodo National Park was visited by more than 221,000 people in 2019, but that number declined to around 51,000 last year in light of the pandemic.

It is unclear whether the plan will be imposed after Indonesia reopens to international tourism.

In Bali, foreign tourists – including backpackers and so-called digital nomads – have repeatedly made headlines for their outrageous and unlawful behaviour that has landed them in hot water, from promoting easy access to the country during border closures to holding a mass yoga retreat amid the pandemic, and even throwing a motorcycle into an ocean for social clout.

Almost 200 foreigners were deported from Indonesia between last March and May this year for flouting various rules.

While some locals have little tolerance for these tourists, many Bali-based business owners said they relied on backpackers for a living, including I Gede Eka Widyasta, who manages the Amed Sunset Hotel.

“Before the pandemic, my guests were mostly from Europe, with backpackers making up 60 per cent of them,” Widyasta said. “If backpackers are banned, I will still get guests but [the occupancy rate] would not be as high as I expected, so this will impact my business.”

Australian Janet De Neefe, a long time Ubud resident and entrepreneur, said excluding backpackers from the island would dramatically change the tourism culture there.

“I guess the concern is Bali was built on a losmen (hostel in Indonesian) [concept, namely] staying in homestays with families. That’s how the culture was permeating in a way among the tourists, because they were staying with families, living close to Balinese life,” she said.

“So if you’re stopping supposed backpackers, it means that you are also killing the very type of accommodation that made Bali so beautifully charming in the early days.”

De Neefe, who first came to Bali in 1975, said it had always been a home to all kinds of tourists.

“[Bali in the 1970s] was kind of a crazy, overgrown, tropical, intriguing island. Even back then there were a lot of hippies, intrepid travellers, and the surfers. But there were also the beginnings of the wealthier, middle-class travellers,” she said.

“We can’t ignore the contribution that the hippies and the surfers have made. The surfers were among the first, in the ’70s anyway, to reinvent Bali.”

De Neefe said Indonesia’s goal to attract fewer tourists but get them to spend more on their trips was probably tied to the pandemic-related economic hardship experienced by the country’s tourism sector.

Indonesia recorded just 4.02 million foreign tourist arrivals last year, down 75 per cent from 2019. The sector, which employed 12 million people in 2019, contributed 5.7 per cent to Indonesia’s gross domestic product that year.

“I have two restaurants [in Ubud] but I only have one open, and we’re struggling, we’re barely covering our costs, but I refuse to close. We have a hotel that has no guests, like everybody, so everybody’s in a really bad financial state,” De Neefe said.

Others are more in favour of the ban, however. Azril Azahari, chairman of the Indonesian Tourism Scholars Association, said it was time for the Southeast Asian nation to close its doors to backpackers.

“I always disagree with allowing backpackers into the country, because they do not contribute much to [state] income, although there’s a lot of them,” he said. “We need to [count the success of tourism] based on tourist spending, or their length of time in Indonesia.”

Azril said it would be difficult for Indonesia to filter travellers, as it was a visa-free destination for 169 countries. “Anyone with money is welcome in Indonesia … as long as they can buy [return] flight tickets,” he said.

However, recent research shows that high-end tourism, while positive for the environment, was of little benefit to the local communities.

In an article for The Conversation in May, Chloe King from the University of Edinburgh and Wa Iba of Halu Oleo University in Southeast Sulawesi cited the case of a high-end dive and resort operator in Sulawesi’s Wakatobi National Park, which charges up to US$1,000 per person for a single night’s stay.

The operator would use these fees to pay the villages to halt practices such as destructive fishing, though the locals later told researchers that this money only “benefited the local political elite”, King and Iba wrote.

“Due to the exclusive and closed-off nature of the resort, guests rarely interact with the local community. This was frequently cited as a point of frustration,” they wrote.

“Intercultural exchange and informal interaction facilitated through homestay operators helps to increase human capital and community skills. With high-end resorts, this interaction is rare.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.