LALANGLINGGAH VILLAGE, Indonesia: Ni Nyoman Ayu Sutaryani, a mother of three, made a steady living for two decades working as a masseuse and yoga instructor at Bali’s luxury hotels and spas. Now at 37 she finds herself back on the farm of her childhood village here, standing precariously at the top of a tall bamboo ladder, picking cloves.
It is not the life that Ayu had imagined for herself. But on Bali, which depends heavily on tourism, she is one of thousands of workers who have been forced by the coronavirus pandemic to return to their villages and traditional ways of making a living.
“This is my first time being jobless, and sometimes I want to cry,” Ayu said. “Everything is returning to the old time. That’s what we have to do rather than starving.”
Like Ayu, many have returned to their family farms, helping to plant and harvest crops. Others feed their families by digging for clams in shallow Benoa Bay or by casting fishing lines out to sea from one of Bali’s deserted beaches.
In a sign of how far the economy of the Indonesian island has declined, some rural residents have turned to bartering fruit and vegetables so that they can save their limited cash to buy necessities.
Bali, with a population of 4.4 million and eight times the physical size of Singapore, is Indonesia’s tourism engine, boasting spectacular beaches, terraced rice fields, scenic temples and ideal weather. Largely Hindu in a predominantly Muslim nation, Bali carved out its own identity as a tourist destination decades ago and was once widely viewed from abroad as an independent country. Hoping to capitalise on the Bali name, the central government began a campaign last year to create 10 “new Bali” destinations.
More than half of Bali’s economy depends directly on tourism and a quarter is engaged in tourism-related activities, such as transporting visitors and supplying food to hotels and restaurants. Last year, Bali attracted more than 6 million tourists from abroad and 10 million from Indonesia.
The number of hotels keeps growing; some international chains operate more than two dozen. President Donald Trump has gotten in on the act, partnering with a politically connected billionaire to build a Trump-branded hotel and golf resort.
The economy has suffered through other disasters: the 2002 Bali bombing, the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the 2017 eruption of the Mount Agung volcano. But the coronavirus outbreak has been the most devastating.
In March, Indonesia banned foreign visitors from the worst-hit countries and, weeks later, extended the ban to all foreign tourists. In May, the government banned domestic tourists from travelling to Bali, although officials and business travellers with a negative coronavirus test were allowed.
Nevertheless, Indonesia has surpassed China in the number of cases to become the country hit hardest in East Asia, with more than 88,000 cases and 4,200 deaths as of Monday. On Bali, the number of cases has doubled, to 2,781, and deaths have quadrupled, to 44, in a little more than three weeks.
The travel restrictions have slammed Bali’s tourism industry. During the first half of the year, the island received 1.1 million foreign tourists, almost all of them before the pandemic. That was a drop from nearly 2.9 million during the same period last year. Comparative figures for domestic tourists were not available.
Impatient to revive the economy, Bali’s governor, I Wayan Koster, began gradually reopening the island this month, including restaurants and popular beaches. He hopes to bring back domestic tourists to Bali starting next week and attract foreign tourists beginning September 11.
For a generation, young people have been drawn from villages in northern Bali to work in the tourist centres, mainly in southern Bali. Many attend tourism vocational schools before taking jobs in hotels, restaurants and tour agencies.
“Tourism has become the dominant work for most people,” said Ricky Putra, chair of the Bali Hotels Association.
The pandemic has forced hotels and other tourist facilities to lay off some workers and cut the pay and hours of others. Larger hotels have kept skeleton staffs on duty, rotating workers in for a week or two at a time, while allowing them to make a little money and return to their villages.
“Mostly they are going back to their villages,” said Ricky, who is also general manager of the Santrian Resorts and Villas hotel group. “Some of them can use this very challenging time to help their parents and go back to their village farming or fishing.”
One local leader, Dewa Komang Yudi, said he welcomed the return of tourism workers to his community, Tembok Village, in far northern Bali. He said that about 400 unemployed workers — waiters, spa employees, drivers and cook’s helpers — had returned to the village of 7,000 and were growing food on land that had been fallow for lack of workers. He hopes many will stay permanently.
“Deurbanisation suddenly occurred because of the pandemic,” he said. “There are more people now in north Bali than in south Bali because many of them returned to their villages. This is what we have been dreaming about.”
Yudi, 33, who attended a tourism academy and used to work as a hotel butler, said Bali should devote more resources to farming, a more sustainable enterprise. Instead, it has become overly reliant on tourism.
“People are depending on it like opium,” he said. “Tourism is fragile, and we have gone too far. We have been abandoning the fundamental things that mobilise the economy.”
Across the island, some communities give food aid to the unemployed, such as rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and sugar. But recipients say it is not enough to live on. Many also have debts, like instalment payments for motorbikes, a common mode of transportation on the island.
At Benoa Bay, on the southern end of the island, low tide attracts dozens of people from villages nearby to dig for clams, using rakes made of scrap wood, nails or even their bare hands and feet. On a good day, one can collect more than a pound of clams.
Some also hunt for small crabs using a wooden stick with two iron hooks that are bent like fingers. If their families are lucky enough to have traditional boats, known as a jukung, they go out to sea and catch shrimp.
Kadek Merta, 34, who was digging for clams recently, said he had been a hotel steward but had not worked since March.
“I feel hollow,” he said. “There is no job. I can only survive by depending on the sea.”
Agung Yoga, 39, a junior chef, said he used to fish as a hobby along Bali’s southern beaches, sometimes wading out into the surf. But now, unemployed for the first time, he is fishing as a matter of survival for himself and his family.
“If this situation continues until next year, I am hopeless,” he said. “Maybe we won’t be able to eat.”
Ayu — whose sister, brother, uncles, nephews and cousins all work in tourism — preferred working as a masseuse, because she earned a decent income and it was easier. Harvesting cloves in Lalanglinggah Village from the tops of trees that grow more than 60-foot tall can be hazardous. But living in the village, on the southwestern coast of Bali, a few miles from the sea, has its advantages, too.
From the top of a homemade ladder, Ayu could see the beach and the forest, and feel a gentle breeze flowing in from the Bali Strait.
“I feel serene,” she said during a break in picking. “In the city, it is crowded. Having this activity calms my mind.”
More important, the return to traditional village life has reunited relatives who usually see one another only on important holidays.
“I earn more working in tourism,” Ayu said. “But on the positive side, God has given us this situation so we can be with our families.”