Denpasar (Indonesia) (AFP) – Wearing yellow ‘Bali’ caps depicting a surfer as the last letter, Chinese tourists strolled the pristine blue waters of Indonesia’s tourist hotspot, forgetting three years of suffering from Covid-19.
Exploring “Turtle Island”, taking day trips to neighboring Lombok and visiting Bali’s famous beaches, the world’s biggest spending tourists returned after the start of the Lunar New Year and Beijing reopened to the world last month.
“I am especially happy to travel because before the pandemic, I was a person who liked to travel a lot, go around everywhere to see the sights, experience different cultures and people,” Li Zhao-long, a 28-year-old Internet employee of the company from Kunming in southwestern Yunnan province, told AFP.
“Three years later, being able to come from China to Indonesia, I am extremely happy and very happy.”
Chinese holidaymakers have endured years of lockdowns and travel restrictions driven by Beijing’s fervent pursuit of a “zero Covid” policy, followed by a sudden reopening and accompanying spike in infections.
Now a lucky few, armed with selfie sticks and wearing tropical shirts and straw hats, are on a long-awaited escape to the ‘Island of the Gods’.
In recent years, the number of Chinese visitors to Bali has declined after both countries closed their borders in the midst of the pandemic.
But Indonesia’s tourism minister said Jakarta was aiming for a massive recovery from those lows and estimated the country would welcome 253,000 Chinese tourists this year.
Balinese officials are even more upbeat, hoping for the return of two-thirds of the 1.2 million Chinese visitors who came to the island before the pandemic – making them the second largest group of tourists after Australians.
Although only a few hundred Chinese tourists have so far arrived on the once-a-week flight from Shenzhen, the Indonesian government says four more airlines have applied to fly regularly to Bali from China.
Officials expect a return to normal Chinese tourism levels – which once accounted for a fifth of all visitors – to the island by 2025.
The government also plans to boost the marketing of Bali as a paradise destination, according to the tourism minister.
At a mall in the Balinese capital Denpasar, Dong Yi was one of those who needed no convincing, promising to return to Indonesia now that mainlanders can travel back and forth.
“From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt the passionate hospitality of the people of Bali. I really like it here,” said the 47-year-old finance worker.
“I will come here often to travel in the future”
Li said the pandemic was a “difficult time” for him and his countrymen, and after an agonizing three-year wait, “just being able to leave the country is a happy occasion.”
China, relatively unaffected by the virus for years after its initial outbreaks thanks to draconian measures, has faced its biggest surge in cases in recent weeks, with around 80 percent of the population believed to have contracted Covid.
While the US, Italy, South Korea and Japan have imposed restrictions on travelers from mainland China over infection concerns, Indonesia has resisted imposing any targeted measures beyond mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for all visitors.
Meanwhile, business is far from business as usual on the resort island as the rainy season is in full swing and visitor numbers are still recovering.
But for shopkeepers like Elfan Situmorang, anxiety is finally rising after years of economic malaise.
“I hope that more and more Chinese tourists will come to Bali so that our business will do well again,” Situmorang told AFP, saying that before the pandemic, 80 percent of his customers in the tourist area of Kuta were Chinese .
“During the pandemic, because there was zero revenue … we had to cut our staff.”
Tour operators are also optimistic that the sector will bounce back with the help of a return to the flourishing Chinese custom of yesteryear.
“We suffered, to be honest. I lost 10 kilograms, so you can see how difficult it was,” Anita, manager of a local Indonesian travel agency at Bali’s international airport, told AFP.
“But I’m sure we’re on the mend.”
© 2023 AFP