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 anti-war mural on a private house, and a Russian teenager was caught vandalising 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 access for Russia and Ukraine to the country’s visa-on-arrival programme.
He said many of those who have flocked to Bali to avoid the war have not only violated a number of local laws but also 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.
But later, they discovered that many Russians had taken 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.” (Story continues below)
Russian tourists get a surfing lesson at Batu Bolong beach in Bali. (Nyimas Laula/The New York Times)
Many Balinese say part of the issue is that 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 programme. The visas allow Russians, 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 programme 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, Sandiaga had told The New York Times that the government would help renew the tourist visas of those fleeing the war.
But authorities in Bali have zeroed in on the rising traffic violations involving Russians and Ukrainians that have sometimes turned deadly. In response, Wayan, the governor, announced last week a ban on all foreigners riding motorbikes, a decision that 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’,” 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”. (Story continues below)
An antiwar mural with the colours of the Ukrainian flag on the side of a house in Berawa, Bali. (Nyimas Laula/The New York Times)
Ukrainian envoy offended
Ukraine’s ambassador to Indonesia, Vasyl Hamianin, told reporters last week that he was offended that Wayan had lumped Russians and Ukrainians together. 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.
Hamianin said the 5,000 Ukrainians currently living in Bali contribute to the local economy, 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,” Hamianin said.
Much of the frustration in Bali has been focused on Russian tourists. 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 said 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 Niluh’s house to apologise.
At Niluh’s request, Chilikin, a 23-year-old from Moscow, agreed to perform a ceremony on the mountain to apologise. Niluh told Chilikin that if he abides by other laws, she would tell local officials not to deport him.
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.
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 Pozdniakov.
In an interview, Silmy Karim, director general of immigration for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said he was still reviewing Wayan’s proposal to revoke the visa-on-arrival programme 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 estimated to be more than 350,000 Russians on the island of Phuket alone.
“They can be orderly,” he said. “It’s up to us to watch over and discipline them.”
- This article originally appeared in The New York Times
Sergey and Elena Pozdniakov, who say they are touched by the hospitality of the Balinese, and ashamed of the poor behaviour of some of their compatriots, with their daughter in Ubud, Bali. (Nyimas Laula/The New York Times)