The global shock of the coronavirus pandemic has forced Bali to confront an uncomfortable truth — its economy is addicted to tourism.
In calm waters between the islands of Ceningan and Lembongan, off the east coast of Bali, an old way of life has returned.
Seaweed farms had all but disappeared from the Ceningan Strait over the past decade as Bali’s tourism boom finally reached this sleepy island chain.
Now the tourists are gone and the farms have sprung up again, stretching out over sandy shoals in checker-board patches.
Once locals toiled day and night in the sun and salt water, but they abandoned the farms for more lucrative jobs in tourism.
With the villas, resorts and restaurants lining the foreshore now empty and boarded up, a question lingers over these islands.
Will tourism ever return exactly as it was before the pandemic — and do Balinese people even want it to?
Wayan Wira Candra’s parents never intended for him to join the family business. They had bigger dreams for their son than toiling waist-deep in the Ceningan Strait, working a backbreaking job for meagre wages as they did.
They started seaweed farming in the mid 80s but like many Indonesian families, encouraged their son to set his sights over the Badung Strait to Bali as a pathway to a better future.
In 2005, Wayan enrolled in a three-year course at a Bali tourism school, eventually snagging a dream job in one of the main island’s big hotels.
“Since a long time ago, many young people were enthusiastic about working in tourism,” says Wayan, now a 35-year-old father of three.
“Before the pandemic they thought it was very promising. It was very rare for people to be interested in seaweed farming.”
Back then, Ceningan, Lembongan and the larger neighbouring island of Penida were together one of Bali’s best kept tourism secrets, a quiet oasis away from the crammed laneways of Kuta and Seminyak.
For island hoppers willing to look beyond the usual tourist haunts of mainland Bali, they offered easy exploration, uncrowded surfing breaks, virgin dive sites and a more chilled atmosphere.
But for the locals, the opportunities to make a good living were still sparse.
“Besides being a seaweed farmer, you couldn’t do anything,” says Wayan.
“So that’s why my dream was to move my family from here to Bali. If I’m successful, I’m having a house and everything.
“People were proud to be able to live in Bali.”
But around a decade ago, change came suddenly. Bali’s decades-long tourism boom arrived in Ceningan and Lembongan and these secluded islands were a secret no more.
Now married and raising a young family, Wayan looked back across the water to his home island as the opportunity to pursue his tourism dreams.
Just over a year ago, at the peak of the boom, Wayan and his wife Riza borrowed money and poured their life savings into a holiday bungalow in Lembongan. Riza would manage the business while Wayan earned a stable wage in a high-end resort.
They had hardly welcomed their first guest when COVID struck.
“After the pandemic hit us, we were in the throes,” he says. “What should we do to be able to survive?”
The answer would reveal just how much Wayan and the people of his islands had come to rely on a seemingly endless stream of visitors to Bali: “We had no choice but to go back to nature.”
From the Nusa Lembongan beachfront, the thin outline of Bali’s coast is faintly visible across the water, framed by the tempestuous Mount Agung looming behind.
It’s hard to imagine the mainland once felt so far away.
Aussie expat Troy Sinclair has spent the last 18 years on Nusa Lembongan building a hotel business with his wife Aleesa and remembers when the distance seemed to suddenly shrink with the arrival of the first fast ferry.
“The accessibility of Lembongan turned from being a one-and-half-hour trip on a jukung to literally being a half-hour trip out of Sanur to the beachside here,” says Troy.
Before that there had been just one boat off the island at 7:30am and anyone who missed it was stuck for another night.
Soon the number of fast-boat operators grew to over 20, all running up to four scheduled trips a day with multiple boats ferrying thousands of day trippers and holidaymakers across from the mainland.
With the influx of tourists came a boom in new jobs. Locals were soon clamouring for their piece of the economic expansion.
“More and more families either had their sons and daughters working in tourism, or they’ve set up their own restaurants, or their own motorbike hire, or their own snorkelling tours.”
The patchwork of seaweed farms carpeting the sandy strait started to disappear, until a few years ago they were all but gone.
Like mainland Bali, these islands were now hooked on tourist dollars. The old way of life seemed like it might fade for good.
For a seaweed farmer, every day is a race against the incoming tide.
Rising waters soon put a stop to harvesting in the shallows, or setting the poles and ropes for the plantation rows of green and brown.
There are no rostered shift times in this job; work patterns are dictated by the rise and fall of the seas.
When the tides demand it, Wayan wades into the underwater plantations at night under the light of torches, groping in dark waters.
With the survival of each crop at the mercy of the elements, scratching a living in seaweed farming means never being sure of your next pay cheque.
Each day for the past year, Wayan has walked down tumbled stone steps over the sandy shore to work his family’s seaweed patch out in the bay.
The seaweed he plucks from the “tali pokok” — or main rope — is hauled away in traditional boats and large baskets for drying. It’s then sent to Java for processing to make products ranging from sushi to cosmetics and medicines.
Everywhere the fishy smell of seaweed drying in the sun hangs in the air.
It’s exhausting work and for far less pay than Wayan is accustomed to. Before the pandemic shuttered the resort where he worked, Wayan was taking home nearly $800 a month in tourism. Now it’s less than $200 a month from seaweed farming.
But it covers his basic needs and provides for his family.
“When I get home and see my baby’s smile, my tiredness is gone. That’s more important,” he says.
Most of the twin-islands’ 6000 residents have been impacted by Bali’s tourism shutdown but many have been able to turn back to making a living from the sea to stave off financial disaster.
It was not so long ago that people in Ceningan and Lembongan relied on the farms for their incomes, so young tourism workers have been able to relearn the aquaculture skills alongside the older generations.
The crisis has in many ways brought the community together. Families have divided the plots across the channel so everyone gets a space to work, Wayan says. Not everyone across Bali has been so fortunate.
“We are still proud of this island because we still survive from seaweed farming,” says a worker out in the channel. “In the city, no jobs. It’s like, game over.”
Before COVID forced international travel to come to a grinding halt, more than half of Bali’s economy relied directly on tourism.
Officials had predicted up to seven million travellers would come to Bali in 2020 — then the world went into lockdown.
Bali has suffered shocks to its tourism industry before, like the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2017 eruption of Mount Agung, which temporarily slashed tourist numbers. But the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the door shut, hitting the island harder than ever before.
Unemployment is now rampant and many workers rely on food handouts, or sembako, to get by, especially in the popular tourist spots in Bali’s south.
The Indonesian government provided an initial hit of economic relief but with few social safety nets to fall back on, many Balinese have been forced to flee tourist towns and return to the rural villages in the north looking for work.
“People who sell massage, or merchandise on the beach, I heard they all went back home to their villages,” says Bali lifeguard Marcello Aryafara, as he keeps watch over the empty waves at Kuta.
While the pandemic has wrought economic chaos, it’s also come with a silver lining. The pause on visitors has come as a warning for Bali to wean itself off over-reliance on the flow of tourist dollars.
Local businesswoman Christia Dharmawan, who runs events at her family’s venue Kebon Vintage, is part of a growing movement for economic diversification in Bali. She believes the pandemic has been a “wake-up call” exposing the need to “go back to loving our island and make sure people don’t abuse it”.
“We realised that we cannot just depend on one industry and we have to develop all the other industries that actually have great potential for sustainability and resilience in the future,” she says.
The pandemic has created space for officials to confront some of the societal problems plaguing Bali after decades of tourism-fuelled development.
Basic infrastructure like roads, water and the electricity have struggled to keep pace with the relentless urban expansion into areas that were recently just farmland, while plastic pollution has clogged the island’s rivers and sullied its beaches.
Environmental groups like Sungai Watch have used the shutdown to ramp up efforts to clean up Bali’s notoriously polluted rivers.
The costs of over-tourism have been all the more keenly felt because locals saw the profits going offshore.
The Balinese Tourism Board estimates up to 70 per cent of the money spent in Bali leaves the island, a problem exacerbated by the lack of local schools to provide locals with the skills to compete.
There’s a push on to secure greater equity for local operators. When visitors eventually return, Bali’s Vice Governor Cok Ace wants to develop sustainable tourism and bring a greater share of the profits to Balinese people.
“Tourism has to bring benefit to Balinese society,” he says. “We want everyone to be peaceful in Bali and we don’t want them to ruin our environment.”
For now, the resorts of Nusa Lembongan are empty shells, awaiting a new wave of tourists.
The return of visitors can’t come soon enough for those who went all-in on tourism during the boom times.
But even out in these islands where locals had an economic fall-back in seaweed farming, there’s talk of change when business comes roaring back.
Troy Sinclair is looking forward to the day his hotel will again be full of guests and the dozens of locals he employed can return to stable work.
“I think Bali was suffering under its own success and to some extent, it wasn’t its fault,” says Troy.
“I think during Bali’s recent peak, it was definitely the beginning of awareness of what types of tourism Bali needs and how to properly look after new tourism locations.
For Wayan, Bali’s “new normal” has been a time to reconnect with his island and “the old way of living”.
Furloughed tourism workers like him, who turned to farming and subsistence fishing, will likely resume their old jobs when the time comes.
The question will be whether this time, when tourists seek out these islands, the old ways can be kept alive — or whether the farms will once again disappear from the bay.
“We have become aware that in the future we should not glorify only one sector of work,” says Wayan
“If later everything returns to normal, we must be able to balance tourism with the natural way of life that exists here.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s ‘Tomorrow Will Be Better’ tonight at 8pm on ABCTV and iview, and streaming live on YouTube and Facebook.
- Photography and video: Matt Davis
- Digital production: Matt Henry