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In Tourism-Devastated Bali, and Crowdfunding Your Way Out of Covid


By William J. Furney

Bali’s main tourism industry was wiped out by Islamic terrorists’ bombs nearly two decades ago, but those repeated Al Qaeda-inspired attacks on tourists partying on the famous Indonesian island were nothing compared to the devastation wrought by an unseen enemy of no creed or ideological bent.

The many thousands earning a living in Bali’s tourism sector — and the many related businesses, from top hotels like W, Bulgari and St. Regis to the abundance of casual restaurants and bars that collectively generate around 80% of the island’s revenue — had hoped covid was over earlier this year and international borders would reopen, allowing a resumption of tourism and the easy flow of cash. 

But the delta mutation proved too much for Indonesia, and panic ensued as hospitals ran out of oxygen while infections and deaths soared. Borders remained firmly shut, sending the tourism industry on a tiny island with few sources of income back into renewed crisis, and leaving many wondering how they, their business and their staff would survive the unending global health storm that erupted in China in late 2019 with cases of a mysterious “viral pneumonia”, according to a timeline of novel coronavirus events provided by the World Health Organization. 

Of the more than 227,800 million cases of coronavirus infection around the world so far — that we know of; many developing nations, including Indonesia, lack medical and administrative resources to test and record infections — and almost 4.7 million deaths, Indonesia, the fourth most populated country (270 million people) has suffered over 140,000 deaths from nearly 4.2 million confirmed cases of infection, according to a tally continually updated by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. 

Unlike in other countries — notably those in Europe and their generous provisions for people and enterprises — there is no government support for unemployed people and companies in crisis, even amid a global health emergency. Although there are nascent moves to provide benefits, and a nearly two-decade-old law that introduced measures to provide a Social Security System. 

Return to Paradise?

Travel analysts have pointed to pent-up demand for holidays abroad, with covid-weary citizens of countries around the world keen to escape and spend time in a nearby hotspot, or an exotic, tropical destination like Bali. But we’re not there yet. There was talk, for instance — based on a statement from a Balinese businessman — that Singapore Airlines might resume flights from the nearby, wealthy city-state to kaleidoscopic, Hindu Bali in November, but it amounted to nothing, and so the island remains starved of tourist cash it hasn’t seen for what’s getting on to be two years. 

“Because Bali is still closed to foreign travel, Singapore Airlines is waiting for the reopening of flights between Singapore and [Bali],” spokeswoman Glory Henriette was quoted by the detikcom news site as saying. 

Equally close Australia — previously the main source of cheap holidays for Bali, and raucous tourists who are not always respectful of the local culture and prone to swigging bottles of beer in sacred temples — continues to battle its own delta outbreak, with major cities like Sydney and Melbourne in months-long lockdown and international borders expected to remain shut into next year. 

Flag carrier Qantas says routes to places like Bali that have high covid levels and low vaccination rates “will now be pushed out from December 2021 until April 2022” as the cash-strapped airline, which lost A$2 billion last year, works towards a “gradual restart” based on the “phased reopening of international borders”.  

Some in Bali — notably expatriate-owned businesses entirely reliant on tourist dollars, or rupiah, the local currency — have turned to the generosity of family, friends and even those they don’t know, asking for donations via crowdfunding platforms to keep them afloat and pay staff salaries, in a place where one Balinese may be supporting many family members, including their siblings, parents and grandparents. 

Injections of Funds

A British woman who runs what is widely regarded as Bali’s foremost scuba diving operation, in waters teeming with life as dazzling as that on land, launched a crowdfunding campaign in December last year to help pay for staff salaries. Annabel Thomas, owner of AquaMarine Diving Bali, which has a fleet of minibuses and its own diving boats, was looking for £7,200 on JustGiving “to assist with life’s essentials” for her dive guides and drivers and ended up 44% over her target, as 128 supporters gave a total of £10,371.

“Tens of thousands of businesses have closed permanently. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. Often, in addition to close family, that one income supported several members in the extended family,” Thomas said in her appeal for funds to help her workers. “Children simply cannot go to school, parents struggle to find ways to feed their family, medicines are unaffordable … There is no government support for citizens or businesses.”

Taking the Plunge: AquaMarine Diving Bali reluctantly launched a crowdfunding campaign, to support its divers (pictured) and drivers, and was overwhelmed with donations. (Credit: AquaMarine Diving Bali)

But, months on, and the pandemic showing no sign of easing and fast accelerating, with the more contagious delta variant spreading like wildfire and countries going back into rolling lockdowns, the injection of cash was not enough, and earlier this year, Thomas launched a second fundraising round on JustGiving. While downsizing her office in Bali’s glitzy Seminyak area of touristy North Kuta district, selling a minibus, putting a dive boat on the market and even flogging office chairs, desks and computers, she hoped to raise the same amount but again got more — £7,847 from 112 supporters. The online-donation drive continues, says Thomas, describing the situation in Bali to me as “abysmally awful”. 

So how did she feel about reaching out to people for money, in a time of worldwide crisis?

“To be honest, I was pretty uncomfortable about it,” she said. “Having a scuba diving company means you’re asset-rich, cash-poor, so at the back of my mind I’d always held the thought that if there was an emergency situation, I could sell something [like a] vehicle. 

“But since the start of Covid, there’ve been no buyers. I hung on, paying [my staff] for as long as I could — I need to keep the company afloat so they all have jobs to which they can return. We had a number of past clients asking how they could send money to support the team, or specific individuals, and so I thought, ‘Extreme times require extreme methods; I’ll try crowdfunding’. 

“I have been so appreciative of the donations we received that I truly have difficulty putting it into words.”

Well-known Bali figure Jack Daniels was also earlier this year turning his attention to raising funds via the internet. An American and long-term resident of Bali, his travel firm, Bali Discovery Tours, was doing no business but it was for his long-running and popular newsletter, Bali Update, that he wanted cash. 

“Bali Update needs broad-base support to continue to share news about Bali with the world,” the plea reads. “Recent news and well-researched editorials published on Bali Update recommending significant changes in national and local policies needed to stage an economic comeback for Bali have been very well received in influential circles in Indonesia — both on a provincial and national level.”

As of writing, 249 people have donated $14,311 of a goal of $20,000 on crowdfunding site GoFundMe; the top donation, so far, is $500, followed by a couple of $400s, a single $300, lots of $20s and $10s and even a $5 chip-in. “Any donation, big or small, will allow us to continue to keep the newsletter and website running, publish the news every week, and pursue plans to enhance coverage despite the problematic nature of the times in which we now live,” the campaign says.

A New Chapter for Bali?

It’s not all dark gloom on the sunny Island of the Gods, however, as one Balinese businessman has seen an uptick in business since the pandemic began at the start of last year. It’s not by digital fundraising that I Gusti Gede Manik Santika and his Bali Infinity Store bedding company in the island’s capital, Denpasar, have experienced rising fortunes but with digital marketing, he explained to me.

“Before, my customers were just hotels, and I had two staff,” he said. “But now, my customers are the public and I have six staff. So corona is making my business grow bigger, because we’ve adapted to the online market and can survive. Those who can’t [sell] online are getting worse; we can survive because we changed to digital marketing.”

The central government, in Jakarta, has begun to relax restrictions, as covid cases fall, and is allowing in foreigners who have residency permits and are vaccinated, get the required tests and quarantine on arrival. And next month, the annual Ubud Readers and Writers Festival returns, for the 18th time, and unlike last year, when it was an online-only affair, it will be in-person in part — a “hybrid festival” combining live and digital events around the central Bali town of art and culture that has long attracted creative minds from around the world. 

Run by Australian Janet DeNeefe, an Ubud restaurateur, hotelier and author who started the literary event to help Bali recover from terrorist attacks on packed nightclubs in October 2002 that left 202 people dead, this year’s theme is Mulat Sarira, the Balinese-Hindu interpretation of self-reflection — but festival funds have been scarce. 

“We had talked about crowdfunding but somehow never got around to it. I imagine we might need to do this post-festival, though, so that we can survive 2022,” DeNeefe told me. “Ubud is totally deserted. It’s rather sad. And there is no consistency. One minute it seems like there are a few more people around; the next minute it seems super-empty again. A tad depressing.”

She said she had kept one of her establishments, Casa Luna, open “but it’s not much fun running a restaurant right now. Parts of Bali, like Canggu, near the beach, are doing OK. A lot of folk from Ubud have moved down there too. And the talk is that they will try and open up at Christmastime. Fingers crossed.”