Chef Ilhani used to serve up Japanese cuisine to holidaymakers every night, now he makes just US$3 a day selling fried snacks on the near empty streets of once bustling Gili Trawangan.
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered almost all the resorts and restaurants across Indonesia’s Gili Islands, famed for their turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and diverse marine life.
Situated close to Bali, tourism and the local economy had been booming, with around 1,500 foreign visitors visiting Trawangan every day.
But when authorities first imposed a nationwide virus lockdown in March 2020 and then closed borders to international travellers, his restaurant could not survive the loss of business.
Almost two years on, he says he is struggling to support his wife and four children.
“Life is painfully difficult now. I sell fried snacks because it is something that locals can afford,” he told AFP, adding: “In the past, whatever we sell there are tourists who will buy, but now as you can see the island is deserted.”
The three Gili islands – Trawangan, Meno and Air – have long been reliant on foreign travellers. There are some 800 hotels with 7,000 rooms but only between 20 and 30 properties remain open, according to Lalu Kusnawan, the chairman of Gili Hotel Association who runs a resort in Trawangan.
Shops, bars, cafes, restaurants all stand empty, some up for sale, others abandoned altogether. Dust and spider webs gather on long unused tables and chairs.
Staff that once worked there have been forced to find other ways to earn a living – some have turned to fishing just to feed their families.
The coronavirus pandemic will cost the global tourism sector US$2.0 trillion in lost revenue in 2021 – the same losses as 2020, the UN’s tourism body warned last week.
International tourist arrivals will this year remain 70-75% below the 1.5 billion arrivals recorded in 2019 before the pandemic hit, according to the World Tourism Organization, adding that the sector’s recovery will be “fragile” and “slow”.
Ilhani fears the suffering will be prolonged because the Indonesian government is now planning to impose stricter virus restrictions in anticipation of a fresh wave of infections.
In Gili Trawangan’s port, most of the boats – used to transfer tourists from one island to another or to reach diving sites – have been anchored for months. A bit further, a pontoon is left to rot.
Borders were officially re-opened in October, but direct international flights to Bali are yet to resume as tourists face a quarantine and strict visa requirements, limiting the demand.
And as fears grow over new Covid variant Omicron, Indonesia has extended its mandatory quarantine to ten days, dashing hopes of an imminent tourism revival.
Kusnawan fears he and his fellow islanders cannot take much more.
“We are not just bleeding, but we no longer have blood to bleed out… We were already in a bad shape even before the Omicron,” he added.
Abdian Saputra, who runs a boat service from Bali to the islands, said he had to sell his assets and lay off half his staff in order to keep his business open as the pandemic meant far fewer sailings were necessary.
“I rarely see any new passengers since the pandemic. If we stop, businesses such as hotels will also die. We are helping each other to be able to survive,” he said.
“But if the situation stays like this, my business could see its last breath in January or early February next year,” he added.
But for foreign travellers who reached Indonesia before the borders closed, or who already lived in the country, the situation has enabled them to explore the island paradise untroubled by mass tourism.
Nicolas Lindback, who is originally from Norway, explained: “I will never experience the island like this again, but if I have to choose I prefer the tourism back… because locals are already suffering long enough.”