(CNN) With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyle and holiday vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has much to offer any world-weary traveler — let alone those fleeing a war zone.
So it should perhaps 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 looking to escape the horrors of war.
Around 58,000 Russians visited this Southeast Asian idyll in 2022 following its post-Covid reopening, and another 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making it the second largest group of visitors after Australians. Add to that more than 7,000 Ukrainians who arrived in 2022 and about 2,500 in the first month of this year.
But for those who flee violence – or conscription – there is trouble in paradise. Balinese authorities this week called for the end of Indonesia’s visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine, citing a number of alleged incidents of wrongdoing and various examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers, unauthorized tour guides and taxi drivers had worked. The move was met with dismay by many Ukrainians on the island, who say most of the incidents involve Russians and are unfairly tarred with the same brush.
“Whenever we get reports of bad behavior from a foreigner, it’s almost always a Russian,” a local police officer in the city of Kuta told CNN, declining to be identified due to sensitivities about the issue.
“Foreigners come to Bali but they act like they are above the law. It’s always been like this and it has to stop,” he said.
Badly mannered tourists can be a hot topic in Bali, where foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for drunk and inappropriate behavior, public nudity and disregard for sacred sites.
But Balinese authorities appear willing to make an example of Russians and Ukrainians amid mounting public debate over perceptions of their behavior.
“Why these two countries? They are flocking here because they are at war,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster said at a news conference this week.
The influx of Russians and Ukrainians into Bali comes despite Ukraine’s ban on all males aged 18 to 60 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 contacted the Russian embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian consulate in Bali. Russian embassy officials did not immediately respond; The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said that Ukrainians in the country are mostly women there for reasons of family reunification rather than tourism and that they “didn’t want to violate the rules and regulations”.
“We all understand each other”
While Bali was popular with Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have only grown more attractive in the wake of Putin’s grueling invasion and subsequent mobilization.
And it’s far from the only hideaway in Southeast Asia. Often touted as one of the top beach destinations in the world, the island of Phuket in southern Thailand 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 St. Petersburg investment banker who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town told CNN. He did not want to reveal his identity for fear of retaliation from the Russian authorities.
Renovated Sino-Portuguese architecture in Phuket Old Town, Thailand.
“No one wants to stay and 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 somewhere that costs less than Moscow and is safer.”
In Bali, part of the appeal is due to Indonesia’s policy of allowing nationals of more than 80 countries – including, at least for now, Russia and Ukraine – to apply for visas on arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days, but can be extended once to a total of 60 days.
That might be a lot of time for those planning longer vacations, but those wanting a longer stay aren’t allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists had been deported for overstaying their visas in recent months, including a 28-year-old from Moscow who was arrested and deported after it was discovered he was working as a photographer.
Others, who arrived hoping to find work, have since returned home and risk the wrath of Moscow if they are suspected of fleeing conscription.
Among the 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” reflecting his stance on conscription and war.
“Like many others who were forced 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, no matter where they take place,” he said.
“A lot of people who didn’t agree with the war flew to Bali – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along well… and understand that ordinary people didn’t start this war.”
“It’s beautiful … no Russian soldiers”
News of the possible change in visa rules has shaken some of the island’s Ukrainians, many of whom left their homes when the war broke out and have been living on savings ever since, traveling in and out every 60 days to avoid flouting 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 are a close-knit community that is largely aloof from Russians and have been surprised by the potential move, he added.
“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and pose no risk to the people of 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 if you read the news you will see how often it is Russians who break local laws and disregard Balinese culture and traditions,” he added.
“Why do Ukrainians have to suffer if it’s not us who are causing problems in Bali?”
Ukrainians at the opening of the consulate in Denpasar, Bali.
The Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Bali said in a statement to CNN that as of February 2023 there were around 8,500 Ukrainian citizens on the island who held various temporary and permanent visa permits.
“Ukrainians are currently not coming to Bali for vacation as our country is under attack. The Ukrainians who are now coming to Bali are for family reunification (for reasons) and are mostly female,” spokesman Nyoman Astama said.
“We reiterate 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 it is now being voiced by the people of Bali.”
For now, at least, anyone from either country still hoping for a visa on arrival can take solace 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.