(CNN) — With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyles and vacation atmosphere, the tropical paradise of Bali has much to offer any world-weary traveler, let alone those fleeing a war zone.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Indonesia’s most famous holiday island has once again become a magnet for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians seeking to escape the horrors of war.
Some 58,000 Russians visited this Southeast Asian idyll in 2022 following its reopening after the Covid-19 pandemic, and another 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making them the second largest group of visitors after the Australians. To them are added the more than 7,000 Ukrainians, who arrived in 2022, and some 2,500, in the first month of this year.
But for those fleeing violence, or conscription, there is trouble in paradise. This week, Bali authorities called for an end to visa policy upon arrival from Indonesia for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing a number of alleged incidents involving misbehavior and several examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers, unauthorized tour guides and truck drivers. cabs. The move has been greeted with dismay by many Ukrainians on the island, who say most of the incidents involve Russians and that they are being treated unfairly.
“Whenever we get reports of bad behavior from a foreigner, it’s almost always Russian,” a local police officer in the city of Kuta, who declined to be named due to sensitivities surrounding the issue, told CNN.
“Foreigners come to Bali, but they behave like they are above the law. This has always been the case and it finally has to stop,” he said.
In Bali, misbehaving tourists can be a touchy subject; there foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for their drunken and inappropriate behavior, nudity in public and for disrespecting holy places.
But the Balinese authorities appear keen to make an example of the Russians and Ukrainians amid growing public debate over perceptions of their conduct.
“Why these two countries? Because they are at war, they come here,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster said at a news conference this week.
The influx of Russians and Ukrainians to Bali comes despite the fact that Ukraine has banned all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Russia does not have an official blanket ban, but has mobilized 300,000 reservists to join the fight, leading many young men to flee abroad rather than be recruited.
CNN contacted the Russian Embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian Consulate in Bali. Officials at the Russian Embassy did not immediately respond. The Ukrainian Honorary Consulate in Bali said that Ukrainians in the country were mostly women for reasons of family unification rather than tourism and that they “did not want to violate the rules and regulations.”
“We all get along”
While Bali was a favorite with Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have grown more attractive since Putin’s devastating invasion and subsequent mobilization.
And it’s far from the only haven in Southeast Asia. The southern Thai island of Phuket, often praised as one of the world’s best beach destinations, has seen a sudden influx of Russian arrivals, many of whom have invested in property to ensure they can enjoy stays prolonged. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former St. Petersburg investment banker who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town district told CNN. He refused to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals from the Russian authorities.
“No one wants to stay and live in the middle of the war,” he said. “It’s stressful to think about the possibility of going back to Russia and being punished… [entonces] it makes sense to invest in a place that costs less than Moscow and is safer.”
In Bali, part of the attraction stems from Indonesia’s policy that allows citizens of more than 80 countries, including, for now at least, Russia and Ukraine, to apply for visas on arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days, but can be extended once up to a total of 60 days.
That might be plenty of time for those planning long vacations, but those looking for a longer stay can’t work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists had been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, including a 28-year-old Muscovite who was arrested and deported after it was discovered he worked as a photographer.
Others who came hoping to find work have returned home, risking Moscow’s wrath if they are suspected of fleeing the draft.
Among the wave of Russians who traveled to Bali was Sergei Ovseikin, a street artist who created an anti-war mural in the middle of a rice field, a “mural” reflecting his stance on conscription and war.
“Like many others forced to leave our home country, I came to Bali as a tourist,” Ovseikin said.
“Russia is still in a difficult political situation. I am against wars, no matter where they take place,” she said.
“Many people who did not agree with the war flew to Bali: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along with each other… and understand that ordinary people did not start this war.”
“It’s beautiful… there are no Russian soldiers”
News of the possible change in visa rules has unsettled some of the Ukrainians on the island, many of whom left their homeland when the war broke out and have been living off their savings ever since, leaving and re-entering every 60 days. to avoid breaking the rules.
“Bali is a good place,” said a Ukrainian named Dmytro. “It is beautiful, the weather is excellent and it is a safe place for Ukrainians; there may be large groups of Russians, but there are no Russian soldiers.”
Ukrainians on the island form a close-knit community who have largely kept their distance from the Russians and have been surprised by the possible move, he added.
“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and we pose no risk to the people of Bali,” Dmytro said. “Many in the Ukraine have questions about Bali and would love to come too.”
“It is very sad that Ukrainians are put in the same [categoría] than the Russians. Russians are the second largest tourist group in Bali and if you read the news you will see how often Russians break local laws and do not respect Balinese culture and traditions,” he added.
“So why do Ukrainians have to suffer if we are not the ones causing trouble in Bali?”
The Ukrainian Honorary Consulate in Bali said in a statement to CNN that there were around 8,500 Ukrainian citizens on the island as of February 2023, holding various temporary and permanent visa permits.
“Ukrainians are not coming to Bali for vacations right now as our country is being invaded. Ukrainians who come to Bali now are for [razones de] family unification and the majority are women,” spokesman Nyoman Astama said.
“We reaffirm that the Ukrainians in Bali do not want to violate the rules and regulations,” Astama added. “It is imperative to enforce the law and implement the consequences of any breach of the law as expressed now by the people in Bali.”
Still, for now at least, anyone from either country still hoping to get a visa on arrival can take solace in the fact that the central government has yet to decide whether to grant the Balinese authorities’ request.
“We will discuss it in detail with other interested parties,” Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told local reporters.
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