Tourists gone, Bali’s young entrepreneurs eye sustainable future

Ubud, Bali – When Made Yogantara lost his job after COVID-19 sank Bali’s tourism industry, he had to get creative to take care of his family.

Made, who worked at a popular tourist restaurant until the pandemic hit, enlisted the help of his uncle – a lecturer in agriculture – and turned a vacant lot owned by his family into a small farm. Nearly two years later, the 26-year-old former bartender is selling organic fruits and vegetables online and at the site.

The 25 square metre (269 sq feet) permaculture garden, I Think Fresh Urban Farms, has enabled Made to stay afloat during the pandemic and even donate more than 20kg (44 pounds) of fresh produce to a recent relief effort for the island’s vulnerable communities.

Before the pandemic hit, Made never thought of venturing outside of hospitality, which before the pandemic would experience a year-end rush that allowed workers to double or triple their monthly wage. Like many of his peers, he saw few other opportunities for young people on Indonesia’s popular resort island.

“But now young people in Bali will really need to explore. We see and experience it ourselves that we can’t rely too much on tourism,” Made, who was furloughed for seven months before being let go, told Al Jazeera.

Made is far from alone.

In 2020, 236,000 people in Bali worked in the tourism sector, compared with 328,000 the previous year, according to data from Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy. That number is unlikely to have improved much in 2021. Despite reopening to international arrivals in October, the island welcomed just 45 tourists in the first 10 months of this year, according to the Central Statistics Bureau of Bali, compared with more than six million visitors in 2019.

The Pratisara Bumi Foundation is helping young people in Bali to start their own businesses [Courtesy of Risyiana Muthia]

The collapse has left young people, in particular, seeking out new ways to make ends meet, according to Irma Sitompul, the co-founder of the Pratisara Bumi Foundation, which runs a nine-month business incubator called INKURI for youth on the island.

“For Bali in particular, we’ve seen how the youth have really struggled,” Irma told Al Jazeera. “Most of the workforce here depends on their income in tourism, and since the sector is hit the hardest, many have become unemployed and aren’t able to find alternative livelihoods.”

“They are also looking for alternatives to tourism because they have seen first-hand how destructive the effect of mass tourism is in Bali, how their ancestral lands are being turned into villas, and how the island is sinking with waste pollution,” Irma added.

Irma, whose nonprofit organisation helps communities set up businesses that prioritise sustainable practices, said the pandemic had inspired many young people to think about starting a small business at home.

“We have 276 applicants, all between 18-32 years old, at the start of the programme. 45 percent of the participants are still in school,” said Irma.

Sustainable biomaterials

Now at its second phase, the incubator is focusing on 23 entrepreneurial ideas, nearly half of which centre around agro-food businesses. Less than one-third are related to tourism.

Gede Abdi Setiawan, one of the incubator participants, became convinced he was meant to be an entrepreneur after seeing his mother lose her job as a spa therapist early on in the pandemic. After a stint working at a hotel, the 22-year-old agro-technology student hopes to develop a freshwater eel farm in his village in Negara, West Bali.

“Rice field eels, specifically,” Abi told Al Jazeera in between INKURI sessions, speaking excitedly about the eels’ value as a foodstuff in his community. “Balinese love eel crackers. They were very popular when I was growing up, sold in almost every roadside food stall. But now that plenty of rice fields in Negara have been converted into buildings, they are becoming more and more scarce.”

Kadek Mesy Wulandari, another INKURI participant, is keen to turn corn husk waste in her village in Klungkung, East Bali into sustainable biomaterial. Mesy, 26, believes her idea could help young people in her village find work. “Nearly everyone in the village – mostly working for cruise ships, hotels, restaurants – is still unemployed. We’re looking to change that,” Mesy told Al Jazeera.

Young people like Gede Abdi Setiawan see their future in entrepreneurship [Courtesy of Risyiana Muthia]

But after decades of building up the industry, Bali is likely to find it an uphill battle to transition away from tourism, according to industry expert Gede Sutarya.

“In 1971, the Indonesian government decided to make Bali an international tourism destination. They welcomed foreign investments, built many hospitality training schools on the island, and then saw the tourism numbers target continue to rise,” Gede told Al Jazeera, explaining that yearly arrivals ballooned from about one million in 1994 to more than six million in 2019.

“To keep up with the climbing numbers, Bali started seeing overdevelopment of foreign hotel chains and villa complexes, often at the peril of locally owned homestays and small businesses. In 2011, there was a moratorium on new hotels in South Bali, but this had little to no effect.”

Gede said the population would continue to see tourism as the main source of jobs until the government put a brake on the rampant development of hotels and villas.

“For older generations … that’s all they know,” he said. “They were there at the beginning of Bali’s plunge into tourism, watched it thrive, and built their career around it. They want the same thing for their children.”

Social expectations

For young Bali residents such as Made, Abdi and Mesy, social expectations are still weighted towards tourism-reliant sectors such as hospitality.

“People thought that it was strange that I chose to study to become a farmer, encouraging me to work in tourism instead,” said Abdi, explaining that many older people associate farming with poverty and hardship.

“But Bali used to have a strong agricultural culture, and there is vast potential in agribusiness. This is something I believe in, and I will work to make it happen.”

Irma firmly believes that change can begin with the young.

“They have the power to shape the country’s future, so we want to make sure that our youth are equipped with the right tools,” she said. “Our goal is to see them empowered in developing their villages in a regenerative way to achieve economic resilience.”

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