Not ready for high season

AT Warung Cantina, owner Made Sukertia, 43, surveys his guests as they settle into their seats just ahead of sunset on a clear day.Made’s modest establishment, where a grilled mahi-mahi and ice cold Bintang costs the equivalent of US$10 (RM43) .50), has seen challenges since it opened under a few sheets of blue tarpaulin in 1998 without permits.

The government shut the eatery on Batu Belig Beach near Seminyak four times, Made said, only for him to reopen it each time.

It bounced back from other shocks, too, including the Asian financial crisis that triggered the ouster of President Suharto in 1998, and the terror attacks that rocked the island a few years later.

And now as Bali’s US$10bil (RM43.5bil) tourist industry, which employed a quarter of a million people and made up the vast majority of the island’s gross domestic product, sputters back to life, a fresh start is once again in the offing .

“This was the biggest challenge we faced, but now things are improving,” Made said, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think they will get better from now on.”

The most recent government data shows a sharp rebound in the number of tourists.

On Monday, arrivals totalled more than 3,900, according to immigration data.

That compares with an average 2,200 during the previous month, itself a more than fourfold increase since March – thanks to a sudden influx of US and Australian travellers, Bali Governor Wayan Koster said.

The addition of Thai Airways and Emirates this week brings to 16 the number of foreign airlines now flying to the holiday island.

Even so, with 65% of the adults having received a booster shot, Bali adds fewer than 30 new Covid-19 cases a day.

Rising visiting numbers and evidence of a pandemic in retreat bode well not only for the island’s tourism industry, but also its slate of high-profile conferences, including the Group of 20 summit, which is set for November.

“We need to keep this momentum so the industry can recover after its two-year slump,” Wayan said.

But recovery still has some way to go.

Movement restrictions still prevent Chinese holidaymakers – Bali’s second-biggest tourism market – from venturing abroad.

Visitor numbers, though growing fast, are at a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels. An average day in May 2019 saw four times as many overseas visitors arriving on twice as many airlines to spend in a day what many Indonesians earn in a month.

The sudden influx of domestic holidaymakers following Ramadan and the rapid recovery in the number of overseas arrivals are also creating headaches for the authorities.

Unscrupulous hotel owners who failed to maintain their properties during the pandemic are advertising rooms with photographs from earlier times when they were in better nick, Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana, head of the Bali Tourism Board and himself a hotel owner, said.

Bagus said officials plan to crack down on dishonest advertising.

Still, hoteliers are keeping half of the island’s 140,000 rooms in mothballs on dreams that the authorities may slam on the brakes by reinstating testing and travel restrictions, he added.

“Even if hotels want to bring more rooms online, many experienced staff have left the industry and it would be tough to cater to the extra guests.

“Tourism has been scarred. If testing becomes mandatory again, it can have a big impact,” he added. “This is a challenge for us.”

But Made said he has mostly held on to his staff. He halved their salaries when the restaurant struggled to attract 30 customers a day during the pandemic.

On a recent day this week, Warung Cantina would have served 120 guests.

As Bali swings into high gear with the onset of the dry season next month, Made is confident that daily covers will be closer to 200, in line with conditions before the pandemic.

“We’re ramping up for the high season,” he said.

“My hope for this year is we get back to normal and I hold on to my business.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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