Nick Carroll: What Will Indo, and Other Regional Surf Destinations, Look Like Once This Is Done?

17 Apr 2020 17 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Mentawai Islands, September 2016. Photo: Andy Potts/The Perfect Wave

Mentawai Islands, September 2016. Photo: Andy Potts/The Perfect Wave

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

THE PLAGUE DESCENDS – An Ongoing Series on How the Pandemic Affects Our Coastal Surfing Lives

The View From the Ments: “It’s Very Hard to Predict Anything”

Surf travel was one of the first victims of the COVID-19 virus.

Even before restrictions made it impossible, people were pulling out of trips. When CW began talking with surf travel companies back in early March, they were working flat out to re-schedule clients who’d decided their annual Indo excursion was maybe a bridge too far for 2020.

“There’s a massive uncertainty in the market,” The Perfect Wave’s Jamie Gray told us at the time. “As I’m saying to the team, we’re going to be here every day helping people figure this out. It’s uncharted waters and we’re all in the same boat.”

At least if you’d booked through a reputable agency, you could call and work something out. If you’d sent a couple of grand to a solo operator somewhere out there, chances are you’ve seen the last of that money. (If and when surf travel gets rolling again, CW strongly advises everyone to work with an Australia-based agency. Be wary of all but the best known and longest established freelances.)

But as the pandemic continues to build in some of surfing’s favourite third world nations, crises are unfolding that may leave those places in a parlous state for longer than we might hope.

To get a sense of how things are on the ground in the Mentawais right now, CW spoke with Christie Carter, manager of Wavepark Mentawai in the Kandui region of the chain. You might think being in lockdown in one of the world’s best surf zones would be fun, but that’s not exactly how it sounds. Here’s what Christie had to tell us:

CW: So first: how are you and who is there with you? Have you been able to keep many of your staff employed?

CC: We’re doing well, all things considered. We suggested to our first guests of the year that they leave after only five days of being at the resort, so we were empty by March 21. They barely squeaked out before Singapore shut its door to transiting passengers. Alice, Amanda and myself are the only full time foreign employees here. The remainder of the local full time employees are working on two-week rotations. They get paid their full wage while working at the resort, and half wage when they are with their families at home. One month in it seems to be working quite well. Nobody has been asked to come back to work or go home for holiday, they're just doing their own thing and keeping a balance. The Padang staff are on full-time wages still and haven't yet been asked to voluntarily reduce hours. Everybody understands the company has no income, but I am committed to supporting them as long as I'm able.

How has the Indonesian Govt and local authorities kept you informed of the pandemic? Do you have a clear idea of how it is affecting the population generally?

Last year we formed "Resort Mentawai Bersatu", which is the only official resort association recognised by the government in Mentawai. We have ten resorts as paid up members, and our association president has spent a lot of time sitting in meetings and co-ordinating with the various government departments in Mentawai and around West Sumatra. He keeps the members informed of what is going on via a whatsapp chat group. We generally receive official notices 24-48 hours after they are released.

Indonesia has banned foreigners from entering or transiting through Indonesia. The only exceptions are foreigners with specific kinds of visas received prior to entry, complete with a health certificate from a relevant authority issued within seven days of travel. The latest version of this ministerial order had no end date mentioned, so we don't know when this is likely to change on the national level. It is very difficult to plan anything.

West Sumatra only has Kuala Lumpur as an international airport departure destination, which was closed mid-March. Furthermore, no passengers, (local or foreign) are allowed to leave on vessels departing Padang for Mentawai at all. Cargo is still being allowed to cross the channel. So far fuel and food is still arriving on public ferries, but the fast ferry has stopped operating. So there are multiple hurdles to anybody who wanted to come visit Mentawai. Mentawai had its first COVID-19 positive case reported last week. Right now only Padang and the mountain city of Bukittinggi are under PSSB (large scale mandatory social distancing rules), but the Governor of West Sumatra has asked for permission to put the entire province under PSSB, and I think this will be approved within days. The effect on business has been huge as it has everywhere else, but with these most recent changes, it won't get any better for the economy in the short term.

What will Indo look like to Western surf travellers when they begin to return to resorts and boat trips etc?

It is very hard to predict anything, even about what will happen tomorrow. But I dusted off my crystal ball and here's what it said. 

Notwithstanding the creation and distribution of an effective vaccine, Indonesia will not open up for a long time. Even with a vaccine, Indonesia will be one of the last countries to be inoculated. The conditions needed to open up Indonesia will be when you can get instantly tested negative (or immune) at the check in counter of Garuda Sydney before boarding a plane, and then instantly tested with the same result upon arrival in Bali. It will take a huge leap of faith for airlines to start running commercial flights again.

It will be foolish for tourists to come here who aren't already immune or vaccinated, but some tourists will end up here and dying in Indonesian hospitals because travel insurance won't cover anything related to the words "COVID" or "pandemic".

There are a lot of businesses that are young, under-capitalised and/or poorly managed that will fail all across Indonesia. So overall less variety in choices for tourists than what they were used to before. There will be some good discounts for travelling surfers, but for budget travellers who would normally stay in local village houses, there will be a lot of xenophobia and suspicion to overcome. This could make some trips quite uncomfortable and not worth being hassled for. There will also be more petty opportunistic theft than before for tourists who leave their purse open while focused on posting to Instagram.

There will be some great deals in land purchases and failed businesses to be had for anybody who has the wherewithal to invest in the long term of the country. The Rupiah and fuel will be cheap for investors with any kind of dollars. But there will be other countries in south-east Asia who will heal faster than Indonesia, and the pain in the short term will be intense for investors. The government will have trouble attracting foreign investors to build new assets or renovate old assets like hotels, resorts, casinos and invest in public infrastructure, so the economy here will stagnate for ages.

All of this just means a cheaper but less quality version of Indonesia than before the virus. Maybe good for surfers with less people in the water in the short term, but the xenophobia will be the hardest thing for everybody to get over.

Everything else is cloudy in the crystal ball, and things like property prices overall, social and economic stability, supply chain management and government intervention only make the outlook less clear.


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