Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

A Refuge for Russians and Ukrainians, Bali Rethinks Its Open-Door Policy

For most of last year, thousands of Russians and Ukrainians flocked to the Indonesian island of Bali to escape the war. There they found refuge in a tropical paradise where locals rolled out the welcome mat for Ukrainians fleeing the shelling and Russians dodging the draft.

Then, a Russian influencer scaled a 700-year-old sacred tree, naked.

After that, a Russian street artist painted an antiwar mural on a private house, and a Russian teenager was caught vandalizing a school.

A string of recent motorbike collisions involving Russians and Ukrainians has raised questions about traffic safety on the island.

Now, the once-welcoming Balinese people have had enough. Confronted with a barrage of complaints, the governor of Bali, Wayan Koster, announced earlier this month that he asked the Indonesian government to revoke Russia’s and Ukraine’s access to the country’s visa-on-arrival program.

He said many of those who have flocked to Bali to avoid the war have not only violated a number of local laws but have been seeking jobs while on short-term tourist visas. (Obtaining a visa on arrival is usually instantaneous, requiring a $33 fee and no paperwork.)

The Balinese have long endured badly behaved tourists in mostly isolated incidents. Now, they complain regularly of half-naked foreigners riding motorbikes and desecrating objects that are considered sacred on the predominantly Hindu island.

“It’s like they live in a bubble and they don’t care about what’s outside the bubble,” said I Wayan Pardika, 33, a Balinese tour guide for a hotel. “For them, it is OK to be half naked, with only a bikini and driving around without a helmet. But they don’t see that it’s not so for the locals around them.”

The Balinese were initially sympathetic to the plight of the new émigrés. Many extended credit for car and home rentals to Russians, who found themselves cut off from the international payments system because of sanctions. After being sealed off for two years during the coronavirus pandemic, they were eager for income.

The State of the War

But later, they discovered that many Russians had taken on jobs on the island — as surfing instructors and tour guides. Some started their own car and home rental businesses, violating the laws governing tourist visas and taking away from local income.

“We opened our doors, we opened our arms, and we welcomed them with a big smile,” said Niluh Djelantik, the founder of a luxury shoe brand in Bali. “But our kindness has been taken for granted.”

Many Balinese say part of the issue is that the authorities are struggling to cope with the sudden influx of Russians, who now make up the second-biggest group of tourists on the island after Australians. Last year, 58,000 Russians and 7,000 Ukrainians visited Bali. This January alone, 22,500 Russians arrived in the province.

In May 2022, the Indonesian government added Russia and Ukraine to the list of countries eligible for its visa-on-arrival program. The visas allow Russians and Ukrainians and citizens from 85 other countries to stay for an initial period of 30 days, and for another 30 days if they apply for an extension.

Sandiaga Uno, the minister for tourism, indicated that the government was not going to revoke the visa program, as requested by the Bali governor. In a weekly address earlier this month, he said that the number of people causing trouble was “not too significant.” Last November, Mr. Sandiaga had told The Times that the government would help renew the tourist visas of those fleeing the war.

The authorities in Bali have zeroed in on the rising traffic violations involving Russians and Ukrainians that have sometimes turned deadly. In response, Mr. Wayan, the governor, announced last week a ban on all foreigners riding motorbikes, a decision that Mr. Sandiaga said should be reversed.

Grishanti Holon, 33, a Russian digital artist, said many of his compatriots who arrive in Bali come from small provinces without much exposure to the world. He said he has formed a group to teach Russians about Balinese norms and encouraged them to open businesses to create jobs for locals.

“Now there are too many people who come and they think: ‘It’s OK for me to do anything I want’,” Mr. Holon said.

Bali’s tourism agency said it would put up signs in English, Russian and Ukrainian next week, urging tourists to follow “common-sense rules.” “Do not post offensive, vulgar pictures to social media,” read one poster. “Confine skimpy beachwear to appropriate venues.” Offenders, it warned, would face “large fines and deportations.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to Indonesia, Vasyl Hamianin, told reporters last week that he was offended that Mr. Wayan had lumped Russians and Ukrainians together. Mr. Hamianin called on the governor to show him the crime statistics involving Ukrainians and cited Indonesian government data that showed that Russians were responsible for 56 traffic violations in Bali in the past week, dwarfing the five Ukrainian cases.

Mr. Hamianin said the 5,000 Ukrainians currently living in Bali contribute to the local economy and pay their taxes, and are “nice and obedient citizens.” He said they were there because of the war but that “the absolute majority of them say they want to get back home.”

“I think it’s just human to allow the people who run from the war to stay some time in your country,” Mr. Hamianin said.

Much of the frustration in Bali has been focused on Russian tourists. Ms. Niluh, the founder of the luxury shoe brand, has an Instagram account with 564,000 followers. Her account has become a clearinghouse for what she says are examples of Russians behaving badly in Bali. (On Monday, she posted two videos showing a Russian man baring his rear end on a sacred mountain and another purportedly Russian man picking a fight with a local security guard.)

On Thursday morning, Yuri Chilikin, the Russian tourist who bared his rear end, turned up at Ms. Niluh’s house to apologize.

At Ms. Niluh’s request, Mr. Chilikin, a 23-year-old from Moscow, agreed to perform a ceremony on the mountain to apologize. Ms. Niluh told Mr. Chilikin that if he abides by other laws, she would tell local officials not to deport him.

Still, Elena Pozdniakova, 33, an engineer from Moscow who arrived in Bali last September with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter, said the multiple accounts of Russian tourists behaving badly made her “feel ashamed.”

“I just want to say that not every Russian is like this,” she said.

Ms. Pozdniakova’s husband, Sergei Pozdniakov, said he understood the frustration because he has also witnessed some of his countrymen behaving rudely. Despite the anger on social media, he and his wife say they remain touched by the hospitality of the Balinese people. “We’ve never met a Balinese person who has said, ‘Because you are Russian, you are bad,’” said Mr. Pozdniakov.

In an interview, Silmy Karim, director general of immigration for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said he was still reviewing Mr. Wayan’s proposal to revoke the visa-on-arrival program for Russia and Ukraine. He said his primary focus is weeding out foreigners who violate local law, and that he is studying the examples of other countries with large numbers of Russian tourists, including Thailand, where there are more than 350,000 Russians on the Thai island of Phuket alone.

“They can be orderly,” he said. “It’s up to us to watch over and discipline them.”

Dera Menra Sijabat and Nyimas Laula contributed reporting.

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