Eyeing Phuket's sandbox scheme, Indonesia mulls 'baby steps' for reopening Bali

BALI – Indonesia’s tourism minister is advocating “baby steps” towards reopening Bali to foreign holidaymakers with a formal decision by the government likely as early as Thursday (Sept 30).

“My recommendation is that we move cautiously,” Mr Sandiaga Uno, told The Straits Times in an interview on Tuesday.

“There are new (coronavirus) variants lurking. We need to take baby steps,” he added.

In July, with the Delta variant driving infections to record highs around the country, Bali was among the first to go into lockdown as the government of President Joko Widodo scrambled to contain Covid-19 nationwide.

That brought the resort island – which, in normal times, would earn US$10 billion from more than 6 million foreign visitors a year – to its knees.

Now hotels in the heart of once popular entertainment districts are abandoned with their once azure pools resembling murky ponds. Shops are shuttered everywhere and many areas appear to be ghost towns.

But with new Covid-19 cases sliding in Indonesia and vaccination rates besting those in some rich countries, local media have carried a steady drum beat of reports that a small measure of deliverance may be at hand.

In recent days, Mr Sandiaga has talked up Thailand’s so called sandbox scheme for the holiday island of Phuket which allows fully vaccinated travellers who test negative for Covid-19 upon arrival to freely roam around the island for 14 days before continuing elsewhere in the country. They do not need to serve hotel quarantine.

“In trial plan for opening Bali, Sandiaga uses sandbox concept,” Tempo, the national daily, said on Tuesday.

“Sandiaga Uno indicates Bali will gradually reopen to foreign tourists,” online news portal Liputan6 said.

But where Phuket is allowing visitors to roam freely, officials in Bali would likely corral holiday makers – at least initially – into designated “safe zones” in Nusa Dua, Ubud and Sanur, on worries that infections could roar back, Mr Sandiaga said.

“The experts are saying that a third Covid-19 wave is inevitable,” added the tourism minister.

A sign recommends the use of PeduliLindungi App at the beach entrance in Bali on Sept 28, 2021.  PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Even so, the plans to reopen Bali reflect similar attempts before the Delta variant hit in June.

“Suddenly, boom! Delta came in June and we were struggling to get it under control,” Mr Sandiaga recalled.

“We were just focusing on vaccinations and bringing down the number of cases.”

Some three quarters of Bali’s adult population are now fully vaccinated and more than 90 new infections were detected on Tuesday, a sharp decline from more than 1,900 a day in August.

The sliding infection rates have for now led to the return of domestic holidaymakers with Mr Sandiaga disclosing that daily arrivals from elsewhere, including Jakarta and Surabaya, had recovered to 6,000.

Mr Ricky Putra, general manager of the Six Senses resort in Uluwatu, an area once popular with Japanese and South Korean honeymooners, said the occupancy rate this month averaged about 14 per cent, which was double that of last month.

Forward bookings suggest it will improve next month, too, Mr Putra said.

“We’re expecting more guests thank God,” Mr Putra told ST.

“Things are getting better.”

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