DENPASAR , INDONESIA (AFP) – Donning yellow “Bali” hats featuring a surfer as the last letter, Chinese tourists walked along the Indonesian backpacker hotspot’s pristine blue waters, forgetting three years of COVID-19 misery.
Exploring “turtle island”, taking day trips to neighbouring Lombok and hitting Bali’s famed beaches, the world’s biggest-spending tourists were back after the Lunar New Year kicked off and Beijing re-opened to the world last month.
“I am especially happy to travel because, before the pandemic, I was someone who liked to travel a lot, going all over to see the sights, experience different cultures and people,” 28-year-old Internet company worker Li Zhao-long from Kunming in southwest Yunnan province told AFP.
“Three years on, being able to come from China to Indonesia, I am extremely happy.”
Chinese holidaymakers have endured years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, followed by a sudden re-opening and accompanying spike in infections.
Now a lucky few armed with selfie-sticks and clad in tropical shirts and straw hats are on long-awaited getaways to the “Island of Gods”. Chinese visitor numbers to Bali plunged after both countries closed their borders at the height of the pandemic.
But Indonesia’s tourism minister said Jakarta was aiming for a massive rebound from those lows and estimated the country would welcome 253,000 Chinese tourists this year.
Balinese officials are even more bullish, hoping for the return of two-thirds of the 1.2 million Chinese visitors who came to the island pre-pandemic – making them the second biggest group of tourists behind Australians.
Though only several hundred Chinese tourists have arrived so far on a once-weekly flight from Shenzhen, the Indonesian government said four more airlines have applied to fly regularly to Bali from China.
Officials are anticipating a return to normal Chinese tourist levels – which once amounted to a fifth of all visitors – on the island by 2025.
The government also plans to ramp up its 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 didn’t need to be persuaded, vowing to return to Indonesia now mainlanders could travel back and forth.
“From the moment I stepped off the plane, I could feel the passionate hospitality of the Bali islanders. I really like it here,” said the 47-year-old finance worker.
“In the future, I will come here often to travel.”
Li said the pandemic was a “tough period” for him and his compatriots, and after the agonising three-year wait, “just being able to leave the country is a happy occasion”.
China, relatively unscathed by the virus for years after its initial outbreaks thanks to its measures, has faced its biggest-ever case surge in recent weeks, with about 80 per cent of the population believed to have contracted COVID-19.
While the United States, Italy, South Korea and Japan have placed restrictions on travellers from mainland China over infection fears, Indonesia has resisted imposing any targetted measures on top of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for all visitors.
Meanwhile, it is far from business as usual on the resort island, with the rainy season in full flow and visitor numbers still recovering. But for shopkeepers like Elphan Situmorang, the anxiety is finally lifting after years of economic malaise.
“I hope more and more Chinese tourists will come to Bali so our business will run well again,” Situmorang told AFP, saying that before the pandemic 80 per cent of his customers in the tourist area of Kuta had been Chinese.
“During the pandemic, because there was zero revenue… we had to lay off our staff.”
Tourism operators are also optimistic that the sector will get back on its feet with the help of a return to the booming Chinese custom of the past.
“We were suffering, honestly. I lost 10 kilogrammes, so you can see how hard it was,” manager of a local Indonesian tour agency at Bali’s international airport Anita told AFP.
“But I am sure we are bouncing back.”