Indonesian island loses patience with Russians, Ukrainians fleeing war

(CNN) With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyles and vacation vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has a lot to offer any world-weary traveler — let alone those fleeing a war zone.

So it may come as no surprise that since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Indonesia’s most famous resort island has once again become a magnet for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians seeking to flee the horrors of war.

According to the Indonesian government, some 58,000 Russians visited this Southeast Asian idyll in 2022 after its post-Covid reopening, and another 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making them the largest group of visitors after Australians. Add to that 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 are problems in paradise. Balinese authorities this week called for an end to Indonesia’s visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing a spate of alleged misconduct incidents and several instances of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers , unauthorized guides and taxi drivers. The move has been met with dismay by many Ukrainians on the island, who say most of the incidents involve Russians and are unfairly being lumped together.

“Whenever we get reports of a foreigner behaving badly, it’s almost always Russian,” a local police officer in the city of Kuta told CNN, who declined to be identified due to sensitivities surrounding the issue.

“Foreigners come to Bali but they act like they are above the law. This has always been the case and it must finally stop,” he said.

Tourist misbehavior 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 Balinese authorities seem poised to set an example for Russians and Ukrainians amid growing public debate over perceptions of their behaviour.

“Why these two countries? Because they are at war, they come together here,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster told a press conference this week.

The influx of Russians and Ukrainians to Bali comes despite Ukraine banning all men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Russia has no official blanket ban, but has mobilized 300,000 reservists to join the fight, leading many young men to flee abroad rather than be drafted.

CNN contacted the Russian embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian consulate in Bali. Russian embassy officials did not immediately respond; Ukraine’s honorary consulate in Bali said Ukrainians in the country were mostly women for family reunification reasons rather than tourism and that they “didn’t want to break the rules and regulations”.

‘We can all get along’

While Bali was a favorite with Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have only become more appealing in the wake of Putin’s invasion and subsequent mobilization.

And it is far from the only refuge in Southeast Asia. Often hailed as one of the world’s best beach destinations, the island of Phuket in southern Thailand has seen a sudden influx of Russian arrivals – many of whom have invested in real estate to ensure they enjoy a long-term stay. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former St. Petersburg investment banker who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town told CNN. He refused to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals from the Russian authorities.

Renovated Sino-Portuguese architecture in the old town of Phuket, Thailand.

“Nobody wants to stay and live in the middle of the war,” he said. “It’s stressful to think about the possibility of returning 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 its appeal is due to Indonesia’s policy that allows citizens of more than 80 countries — including, at least for now, Russia and Ukraine — to apply for a visa on arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days but can be extended once for a total of 60 days.

That may be enough time for those planning long vacations, but those seeking longer stays may not be allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists have been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, including a 28-year-old from Moscow who was arrested and deported after being found working as a photographer.

Others who arrived hoping to find work have since returned home, risking Moscow’s wrath if they are suspected of being on the run from conscription.

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 paddy field – a “mural” that reflected his stance on military conscription and the war.

“Like many others who had to leave our homeland, I came to Bali as a tourist,” said Ovseikin.

“Russia is still in a difficult political situation. I am against wars wherever they take place,” he said.

“Many people who did not agree with the war flew to Bali – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along… and understand that ordinary people didn’t start this war.”

“It’s beautiful… no Russian soldiers”

The news of the possible change of visa rules has shocked some Ukrainians on the island. Many of them left their homeland when the war broke out and have lived on savings ever since. They leave and return every 60 days to avoid breaking the rules.

“Bali is a good place,” said a Ukrainian named Dmytro. “It’s beautiful, the weather is great and it’s a safe place for Ukrainians – there may be large groups of Russians, but there are no Russian soldiers.”

Ukrainians on the island formed a close-knit community that largely stayed away from Russians and were surprised by the possible move, he added.

“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and do not pose any risk to people in Bali,” said Dmytro. “Many in Ukraine have questions about Bali and would also like to come.”

“It is very sad that Ukrainians are put in the same (category) as Russians. Russians are the second largest tourist group in Bali and when you read the news you see how often it is Russians who break local laws and destroy Balinese culture not respect.” and traditions,” he added.

“So why should Ukrainians suffer if it’s not us who are causing problems in Bali?”

Ukrainian people at the opening of the consulate in Denpasar, Bali.

Ukraine’s honorary consulate in Bali said in a statement to CNN that there were about 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 vacation at the moment because our country is being invaded. The Ukrainians who are coming to Bali now are for family reunification (reasons) and are mostly women,” said spokesman Nyoman Astama.

“We reaffirm that 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 for any violation of the law, as now articulated by the people of Bali.”

Still, at least for now, anyone from either country still hoping for a visa on arrival can take some comfort 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 stakeholders,” Indonesia’s Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told local reporters on Monday.

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