Bali’s Changing Landscape: A Tourist Paradise in Turmoil

My sister lives in the picturesque island of Bali, famed for its natural splendour and cultural uniqueness. Of late, she notes, the island has seen an influx of Russians, real estate speculators and digital nomads, while soaring property prices, exacerbated by the post-pandemic economic downturn, have profoundly impacted locals. Here is her account.

I came to Bali in 2016 to study hotel management. A hotel recruiting Chinese staff who spoke Mandarin piqued my interest, and so I ventured here.

My flight arrived in the dead of night amid the rainy season, and the hotel I was to work in perched atop a mountain. The journey was faintly lit, imbuing the place with a ‘village-like’ aura, but come morning the vista was breathtaking. I soon learnt Bali’s tourist attractions were indeed bounteous: volcanic lakes, tropical rainforests, rice paddies, black-sand beaches and grasslands, alongside diving, surfing and yoga experiences.

The hotel where I work gained online fame. In 2016, a celebrity Chinese couple wed here, opening the Chinese market and making us a popular wedding destination. We recruited me to manage our social media presence there.

Pre-pandemic, foreign tourists comprised over 80% of visitors, chiefly Australians, Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans. At our hotel’s peak, Chinese constituted more than 50%.

Chinese tourists have changed over the years. Initially older and less linguistically adept,dependent on guided tours, they now skew younger, better educated, proficient in English and inclined towards adventure like Westerners.

After the pandemic, ‘digital nomads’ flooded in alongside returning travellers.

Canggu,a village north of touristy Kuta, hosts hip cafes, gyms, coworking spaces and celebrity restaurants/bars. Digital nomads and foreign bloggers promoted the place, spawning a ‘healing economy’ in Ubud catering to locals practising yoga and meditation.

Most digital nomads work remotely for tech companies, as illustrators, bloggers or freelancers in cross-border e-commerce. To lure them, Indonesia promised a 5-year tax-free digital nomad visa – unmatched in length amongst similar schemes – though application procedures remain unclear.

These digital nomads live lavishly on developed-world wages. Like when I first arrived – tight on funds and happy eating cheaply and watching sunsets – their lifestyles vary widely.

But local prices seem high to tourists and short-term residents, with few outlets for locals. Foreigners and locals seem to inhabit different worlds, a stark divide.

Housing costs suddenly skyrocketed post-outbreak.

Pre-pandemic, my rent was under 2,500 yuan.Now, speculating Russians renting from landlords for 30,000 yuan and subletting for 70,000 yuan have monopolised the market, frustrating locals. My rent jumped to 6,000 yuan, with my landlord saying Russians would pounce on it otherwise.

Bitcoin speculators have also arrived. With crypto regulations tightening in their home countries,Southeast Asia became attractive. Indonesia hopes to launch a state-backed crypto exchange by mid-2023,perhaps drawing more here.

Speculators impacted locals.In March,an investor-blogger claimed attackers robbed him in ‘bitcoin’ form in Bali,demanding he transfer money from his wallet at gunpoint.

Now my neighbours are French, Russian,German,etc.,with whom I rarely interact.One is apparently unemployed yet has many dogs,another a former hotel GM who resigned and remains jobless.

By 2023, Bali seems more alive.Tourist numbers reached 70-80% of pre-pandemic levels,beach barbecues throng,fireworks light the island. Yet occasionally I miss my cheaper,quieter island life two years ago,when rents were affordable and the beach serene,before prices returned to – and exceeded – pre-pandemic levels.

Sometimes Bali feels a bubble beneath its beauty:vanity and transience at the core.I wonder when it will burst.

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