With its balmy beaches, laid back lifestyles and holiday vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has much to offer any world weary traveler – let alone those fleeing a war zone.
So perhaps it should be 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 post-Covid reopening, and a further 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making them the second biggest group of visitors after Australians. Adding to their number are 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 the violence – or the draft – there’s trouble in paradise. Balinese authorities this week called for the end to Indonesia’s visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing a spate of alleged incidents involving misbehavior and various examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers, unauthorized tour guides and taxi drivers. The move has been met with dismay by many Ukrainians on the island, who say that most of the incidents involve Russians and that they are being unfairly tarred with the same brush.
“Whenever we get reports about a foreigner behaving badly, it’s almost always Russian,” a local police officer in the town of Kuta told CNN, declining to be identified due to sensitivities surrounding the issue.
“Foreigners come to Bali but they behave like they are above the law. This has always been the case and it has to finally stop,” he said.
Badly behaved tourists can be a touchy subject in Bali, where foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for drunk and inappropriate behavior, public nudity and disrespecting sacred sites.
But the Balinese authorities appear ready to make an example of Russians and Ukrainians amid rising public debate over perceptions of their conduct.
“Why these two countries? Because they are at war so they flock here,” Bali governor Wayan Koster told a news conference this week.
The influx of Russians and Ukrainians into Bali comes despite Ukraine having banned 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 fighting, prompting many young men to flee abroad rather than be drafted.
CNN reached out to the Russian embassy in Indonesia and Ukrainian consulate in Bali. Russian embassy officials did not immediately respond; Ukraine’s Honorary Consulate in Bali said Ukrainians in the country were mostly females there for family unification reasons rather than tourism and that they did “not want to violate the rules and regulations.”
While Bali was a favorite with Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have become only more appealing in the wake of Putin’s grinding invasion and subsequent mobilization.
And it is far from the only refuge in Southeast Asia. The island of Phuket in southern Thailand, often lauded as among 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 long-term stays. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former investment banker from St. Petersburg who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town district told CNN. He declined to disclose his identity for fear of retaliation from Russian authorities.
“No one wants to stay and live in the middle of war,” he said. “It is stressful thinking about the possibility of returning to Russia and being punished… (so) it makes sense to invest in a place which costs less than Moscow and is safer.”
In Bali, part of the attraction has been down to Indonesia’s policy that allows nationals of more than 80 countries – including, at least for now, Russia and Ukraine – to apply for visas upon arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days but can be extended once to a total of 60 days.
That might be plenty of time for those planning lengthy vacations, but those seeking a more prolonged stay are not allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists had been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, among them a 28-year-old from Moscow who was arrested and deported after he was found to be working as a photographer.
Others who arrived hoping to find work have since returned home, risking Moscow’s wrath if they are suspected of fleeing the draft.
Among the wave of Russians to have traveled to Bali was Sergei Ovseikin, a street artist who created an anti-war mural in the middle of a rice paddy field – a “mural” that reflected his stance on military conscription and the war.
“Like many others forced to leave our native country, I came to Bali as a tourist,” Ovseikin said.
“Russia remains in a difficult political situation. I am against wars, no matter where they take place,” he said.
“A lot of people who disagreed with the war flew to Bali – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along well with each other… and understand that ordinary people did not start this war.”
News of the possible change to the visa rules has rattled some of the Ukrainians on the island, many of whom left their homeland when war broke out and have been living on savings ever since, leaving and reentering every 60 days to avoid flouting the rules.
“Bali is a good place,” said one Ukrainian named Dmytro. “It is beautiful, the weather is great and it’s a safe place for Ukrainians – there may be big groups of Russians, but there are no Russian soldiers.”
Ukrainians on the island were a tightly knit community that largely kept away from Russians and had been surprised by the possible move, he added.
“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and don’t represent any risk for people in Bali,” Dmytro said. “Many back in Ukraine have questions about Bali and would also love to come.”
“It’s very sad that Ukrainians are being put in the same (category) as Russians. Russians are the second largest tourist group in Bali and if you read the news, you’ll see how often it is Russians breaking local laws and disrespecting Balinese culture and traditions,” he added.
“So why do Ukrainians have to suffer when it isn’t us causing problems in Bali?”
Ukraine’s 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 do not come for holiday to Bali at this current moment as our country is being invaded. The Ukrainians coming to Bali now are for family unification (reasons) and are mostly female,” said spokesperson 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 breach of the law as voiced now by the people in Bali.”
Still, for now at least, anyone from either country still hoping for a visa on arrival can take some comfort in the fact that the central government is yet to decide on whether to grant the request by the Balinese authorities.
“We will discuss it in detail with other stakeholders,” Indonesian Minister of Tourism Sandiaga Uno told local reporters on Monday.