Like everywhere, the pandemic hit the Indonesian tourist destination hard. But with relaxed borders, a renewed spirit, and renovated properties, the island is finally ready to see you again.
If U.S. President Joe Biden had stopped by Michael Ellis Taylor’s restaurant, Los Jefes Tequila Bar + Kitchen, during his mid-November visit to Bali for the G20 summit, Taylor would have had a couple of fish tacos waiting with the commander-in-chief’s name on them.
Then again, if we’re being perfectly honest, it wouldn’t much matter if it were a famous politician, a local pop star, or newlyweds from Pennsylvania walking in, Taylor is just happy to have anybody back ordering drinks and food.
“We started marketing again in December 2021, and we’ve experienced double-digit growth every month since then,” says Taylor, a Texas native who opened his establishment back in November 2019. “I can tell by the traffic that tourism is back.”
The road to recovery has certainly been an arduous one. Like nearly everywhere else on the planet, the pandemic crushed tourism in Asia, hitting Bali especially hard. Before COVID-19’s arrival, the Indonesian island averaged roughly 6.5 million annual visitors. In 2020, the number dropped to about one million, with most of those coming at the beginning of the year. By 2021, that total plummeted. Some figures say it dipped as low as 45 international guests.
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“In tourism, it’s one thing after another,” says Gilda Sagrado, public relations rep for the Bali Tourism Board. “We had SARS. We had bird flu. In the 1980s, we had the Gulf War. [COVID] was more severe in the sense that there was a totality for the entire world.”
As businesses shuttered and professionals like Sagrado sought help in villages for essentials like eggs, the island was desperate for positive news. Some finally came in November 2020, when it was announced that the 2022 G20 would be held in Bali, a move that at least hinted at brighter days ahead.
The next big international headline came in February 2022, when the island began receiving direct flights again and removing its tightest quarantine policies. On March 31 of this year, Indonesia lifted all quarantine requirements. On May 20, the mask mandate was dropped.
And finally, this past November, President Biden and other world leaders met for G20, a conference that was not only meant to show global economic solidarity—the summit’s motto, “Recover Together, Recover Stronger,” proudly waved on signs in the heart of southern Bali—but to also spotlight an island that could handle a large-scale event in the post-covid era.
“We [had] a lot of journalists coming here,” says Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, the past chair of the Bali Tourism Board. “It [was] on TVs and newspapers all over the world. People are going to ask, ‘What is this country?’ [G20 is] a government thing, but for us in the tourism industry, this is what we wanted—the coverage.”
A clear indicator of how well the overall message is coming across can be seen in the health of the island’s high-end travel segment. Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay and Four Seasons Bali at Sayan, sister properties with vastly different approaches to luxury, are collectively thriving like they did three or four years ago.
The former resort sits along a three-mile stretch of sand and has rows of alang alang thatched roof suites that resemble a tranquil Balinese village. Four Seasons Sayan, sitting a 90-minute drive to the north, is surrounded by gardens, rice fields, and the Ayung River. At times, it’s tough discerning exactly where Mother Nature stops, and the stunning resort begins.
“We’re seeing everything,” says Randy Shimabuku, general manager for both standout properties. “We’re seeing international travelers from the U.S., the UK, Germany, and France. And regionally, we’re seeing a lot of Australians. Parts of Asia are [also] opening up, like Taiwan. And about a month ago, Japan [opened its borders]. Asia is still slowly coming back. But everywhere else in the world, people are coming.”
Before the pleasant pivot that began in the summer of 2022, the lavish addresses were essentially shut down. Some employees had to move back with family on remote farms. Shimabuku said others had to take reduced pay or were offered early retirements. Still, he insists Four Seasons did everything in its power to lay off as few people as possible during the dark period.
The Jimbaran Bay location also used the time to make cosmetic changes, namely by renovating some of the units and revamping the Healing Village Spa. At Sayan, the hotel marked the downtime by rolling out new experiences, including the immersive Can You Keep a Secret tour that takes guests to a temple, a historic house, and a bathing ritual. It all seems to be working, too. When Fodor’s sat with Shimabuku in early November, his properties were at 90% occupancy.
All of this renewed excitement is happening with China—traditionally one of Bali’s strongest international markets—largely out of the picture because of its still-heightened protocols. “From a market standpoint, business is back,” says Shimabuku, who also states that China makes up about 20% of his Four Seasons’ business. “But it’s taken on a little bit of a different dimension because we don’t have as much of an Asian influence [with our clientele]. China is a large economic machine. They change landscapes wherever they go. They’re not back yet. In the long term, they’re going to be back. They’re a part of the successful economic equation.”
With the Four Seasons filling nearly every room and restaurants like Los Jefes again serving at pre-pandemic levels, Bali, ironically, must now revisit an issue it dealt with before the shutdown—the effects of over-tourism. Well documented in a 2020 Fodor’s essay, crowds were causing such a strain on the popular island’s infrastructure and natural surroundings that Bali made our annual No List of places that needed a break from humans.
Related: The 2023 Fodor’s No List
The government took the distinction as a challenge to convert Bali into a “green island.” Officials banned single-use plastic bags, plastic straws, and Styrofoam. Recycling, everywhere from the city center to the Badung region, became more a part of everyday life. The Four Seasons has a roster of sustainable and waste-reducing measures it stringently follows. Yes, Scoopy scooters and mini SUVs remain ever-present on Bali streets, but an honest environmental effort appears to be happening.
Another concern in Bali’s return is having enough qualified workers to fill all the jobs. “Balinese are in very high demand all over the world,” says Wijaya. “The Balinese work on the cruise ships, in the spas in Russia, and the hotels in Thailand,” Shimabuku says the personnel purge has made it a grind to hire as many dependable employees as he needs at his resorts.
The staff will eventually come. Everyone invested in Bali wants tourist dollars to keep flowing in as well. The prayer is that China opens its doors in 2023 and that international travelers making their next holiday plans see G20 footage and recognize an island that’s ready to wow again. If it can host President Biden and his entourage, it can certainly handle your birthday getaway.
“Seventy-five percent of our visitors were repeat visitors [before the pandemic],” says Sagrado. “Now it’s 60% new. Here they are for the first time, and it’s amazing. What story have they heard about Bali that they say, ‘This [trip] has got to be done right now?’”
Whatever they’ve been told, the people of Bali only hope the message is repeated over and over again.