(CNN) With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyle and holiday vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has a lot to offer any 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 after it reopened post-Covid, with a further 22,500 arriving in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making them the second largest group of visitors after Australians. Their number will be increased by more than 7,000 Ukrainians arriving in 2022, and by around 2,500 in the first month of this year.
But for those fleeing violence—or nature—there are problems in paradise. Authorities in Bali this week called for an end to Indonesia’s visa policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing numerous suspected cases of abuse and numerous examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers, unlicensed tour guides and taxi drivers. Drivers. Many Ukrainians living on the island have been dismayed by the move, saying most of the incidents involve Russians and are being unfairly tarred with the same brush.
“Whenever we get reports of a foreigner behaving badly, it’s almost always a Russian,” local police in the city of Kuta told CNN, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“Foreigners come to Bali but they behave as if they are above the law. It has always been like that and it must finally stop,” he said.
Misbehaving tourists can be a touchy subject in Bali, where foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for drunken and inappropriate behaviour, public nudity and disrespect of sacred sites.
But Bali authorities appear ready to make an example of the Russians and Ukrainians amid growing public debate about perceptions of their behavior.
“Why these two countries? Because they are at war, so they gather 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 has no official blanket ban, but has mobilized 300,000 reservists to join the fighting, prompting many young men to flee abroad instead.
CNN contacted the Russian embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian consulate in Bali. Officials at the Russian Embassy did not immediately respond; The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said that Ukrainians in the country were mostly women for family reunification and not for tourism, and that they “didn’t want to break the rules and regulations”.
“We’ll all get along”
Although Bali was a favorite of Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have become more attractive since Putin’s grinding invasion and the mobilization that followed.
And it is far from the only refuge in Southeast Asia. The southern Thai island of Phuket, often hailed as one of the world’s best beach destinations, has seen a sudden influx of Russians – many of whom have invested in property to ensure they can enjoy a long-term stay. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former investment banker from St. Petersburg who bought an apartment near Phuket’s old town told CNN. He refused to reveal his identity for fear of retaliation by the Russian authorities.
“No one wants to live in the middle of a war,” he said. “It’s stressful to think about the possibility of going back to Russia and being punished… (so) it makes sense to invest in a place that costs less than Moscow and is safer.”
In Bali, part of the attraction has come from Indonesia’s policy that citizens of more than 80 countries, including at least for now Russia and Ukraine, can apply for visas on arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days, but it can be extended once to a total of 60 days.
That might be plenty of time for those planning long vacations, but those applying for longer stays are not allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists have been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, including a 28-year-old Muscovite who was arrested and deported after he was found working as a photographer.
Others, who arrived hoping to find work, have since returned home, risking the wrath of Moscow if they are suspected of fleeing the wild.
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” that reflected his stance on conscription and war.
“Like many others who had to leave our homeland, I came to Bali as a tourist,” Ovseikin said.
“Russia is still in a difficult political situation. I am against wars, wherever they happen,” he said.
“Many people who disagreed with the war flew to Bali – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “Let’s all get along well with each other… and understand that ordinary people didn’t start this war.”
“It’s beautiful… no Russian soldiers”
News of the potential change in visa rules has upset some Ukrainians on the island, many of whom left their homeland when the war broke out and have lived on savings ever since, leaving and returning every 60 days to avoid breaking the rules.
“Bali is a good place,” said one Ukrainian, Dmytro. “It’s beautiful, the weather is great and it’s a safe place for Ukrainians – there may be large groups of Russians there, but there are no Russian soldiers.”
The island’s Ukrainians were a close-knit community that largely kept their distance from the Russians and were surprised by the potential move, he added.
“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for local communities and do not pose a risk to the people of Bali,” Dmytro said. “Many people in Ukraine have questions about Bali and would also like to come.”
“It is very sad that Ukrainians are put in the same (category) with 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 when we don’t cause problems in Bali?”
The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said in a statement to CNN that as of February 2023, there were approximately 8,500 Ukrainian citizens on the island with various temporary and permanent visa permits.
“Ukrainians are not coming to Bali for vacation at the moment because our country is being attacked. Ukrainians coming to Bali now are for family reunification (reasons) and are mostly women,” said spokesman Nyoman Astama.
“We confirm that Ukrainians in Bali do not want to break the rules and regulations,” Astama added. “It is imperative to enforce the law and enforce the consequences for any violations of the law, as the people of Bali have now announced.”
Still, at least for now, anyone from either country still hoping for a visa on arrival can take solace in the fact that the central government has not yet decided whether to grant the Bali authorities’ request.
“We will discuss it in detail with other stakeholders,” Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told local reporters on Monday.