Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution

Indonesia is looking to welcome back foreign tourists to its resort island of Bali in October. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 21 September 2021

Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution

  • ‘Don’t want to let our guard down,’ officials say amid measures to curb new variants of virus from entering archipelago

JAKARTA: Indonesia is looking to welcome back foreign tourists to its resort island of Bali in October after a 98 percent drop in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country since its worst peak in July, officials said.

Last week, authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions on the tourist island, but international visitors will still face stricter health protocols on arrival to curb the spread of new variants.

Some measures include providing vaccination certificates, undergoing an eight-day quarantine and taking three PCR tests before entering the island.

“We are preparing Bali for (hosting) the G20, so we will have the trial by reopening Bali for foreigners,” Sandiaga Uno, the tourism and creative economy minister, told a press briefing on Monday.

“We don’t want to let our guard down; that would enable other new variants to enter Indonesia like the delta,” he said.

Officials said that some of the countries to be welcomed back could include France, Ukraine, Russia, Austria, Poland, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan.

The government assesses the outbreak situation every week, and Uno said that authorities were approaching the reopening very carefully to avoid a third wave of the pandemic after the second wave — triggered by the highly contagious delta variant — ravaged Indonesia, especially its most populated island of Java and Bali, in July and August.

Indonesia is set to take over the G20 chairmanship in 2022 from this year’s host, Italy.

It is a year earlier than the initial schedule, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, after India — which was set to hold the 2022 presidency — agreed to swap the schedule with Indonesia for 2023.

One of the optional locations in Bali to host the G20 main events would be in Nusa Dua, Uno said, responding to a question from Arab News.

Bali’s Nusa Dua resort cluster, where numerous luxury hotels are located, has hosted other international summits for Indonesia in the past as well.

However, Uno said that the government remained cautious and would reopen Bali and other tourist destinations in stages based on how the situation developed.

Bali is heavily reliant on tourism for its economy, and its regional GDP severely contracted during the pandemic last year following Indonesia’s suspension of visa-free travel for foreign tourists.

In neighboring Lombok Island, adjacent to Bali’s east, its main tourist destinations have also become sleepy towns due to the absence of international visitors.

Some resort hotels on Lombok’s picturesque Senggigi Beach have been shut for months, with very few open as quarantine facilities or those providing heavily discounted prices for domestic tourists.

Meanwhile, Senaru village in the northern part of Lombok, where one of the tracks to hike up Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, Mount Rinjani, starts, is also empty with homestays that were earlier bustling with tourists.

“I could hike up to the peak of Rinjani two or three times a week with guests before the pandemic,” said a village native and mountain guide, Surya, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

On Monday, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a senior minister for investment affairs handling the pandemic in Java and Bali, said that the pandemic’s severity status in all major cities on the two islands had been lowered to level two and three, from the most severe level of four.

“The daily number of new cases has dropped 98 percent from its worst in mid-July,” he said.

The downgrade in outbreak severity level means that some restrictions have been eased, with malls, restaurants, tourism destinations, and public places can welcome customers again with a limited capacity.

In a press briefing on Friday, Pandjaitan said given the current trend, including the case reproduction rate in Java and Bali that lowered on Friday to below 1 at 0.98 and is the lowest since the pandemic hit Indonesia in March 2020, the government is “very confident” that they can reopen Bali for foreign visitors in October.

International arrivals to Indonesia currently have to undergo an eight-day quarantine in Jakarta and Manado, North Sulawesi, where the airports are open for international flights, while the other international airports, including Bali, are still closed for international flights.

“We will review in October to see if it can be reduced to five days,” Pandjaitan said.

Russia, China, Pakistan willing to provide Afghanistan with aid, Moscow says

Updated 19 October 2021

Russia, China, Pakistan willing to provide Afghanistan with aid, Moscow says

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now
  • The United States did not join this round of talks in Moscow but said it planned to do so in the future

MOSCOW: Russia, China and Pakistan are willing to provide aid to Afghanistan, the Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday, but Moscow said it was not yet ready to recognize the Taliban government.
The promise of humanitarian aid and economic support came after talks between Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials, who will be joined by representatives of Afghanistan’s Islamist rulers at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was withholding recognition from the Taliban while waiting for them to fulfil promises they made when they took power, including on the political and ethnic inclusivity of the new government.
Critics say the former rebel movement is backtracking on pledges not to sideline women and minorities, or persecute foes.
“Official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now,” Lavrov told reporters. “Like most of other influential countries in the region, we are in contact with them. We are prodding them to fulfil the promises they made when they came to power.”
In mid-August, the Afghan government collapsed as the United States and allies withdrew troops after 20 years on the ground, leading the Taliban to seize power in a lightning offensive.
Russia, which fought its own disastrous war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, is trying to seize the diplomatic initiative to avoid instability in the wider region that could damage its interests.
In particular it is worried by the possibility of Islamist militants seeping into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, a region Moscow views as a defensive buffer.
Other Russian officials have tempered expectations for Wednesday’s talks. The United States said it would not join this round but planned to do so in the future.
Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, said last week he did not expect any major breakthrough at the talks.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described them as “an attempt to know what will happen in Afghanistan going forward.”

Portugal honors diplomat who saved thousands from Nazis

Updated 19 October 2021

Portugal honors diplomat who saved thousands from Nazis

  • The speaker of the Portuguese Parliament, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, said Sousa Mendes’ conduct lent prestige to Portugal
  • The ceremony marked the completion of Sousa Mendes’ 80-year journey from ostracized Portuguese civil servant to honored international personage

LISBON, Portugal: Portugal paid official homage Tuesday to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who during World War II helped save thousands of people from Nazi persecution, by placing a tomb with his name in the country’s National Pantheon.
Leading Portuguese politicians and public figures attended the formal televised ceremony as the tomb was placed alongside other celebrated figures from Portuguese history at the landmark Lisbon building.
The speaker of the Portuguese Parliament, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, said Sousa Mendes’ conduct lent prestige to Portugal.
“People who at the decisive moment put their and their family’s safety at risk for the greater good are rare. Sousa Mendes was one of those people,” Ferro Rodrigues said in a speech.
The ceremony marked the completion of Sousa Mendes’ 80-year journey from ostracized Portuguese civil servant to honored international personage.
Perhaps Portugal’s most famous 20th-century diplomat, Sousa Mendes defied his superiors, including dictator António Salazar, when as consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940 he handed out visas to many people who feared being hunted down by the Nazis.
The Portuguese visas allowed people, including Jews fleeing the Holocaust, to escape through neutral Portugal by air and sea to the United States and elsewhere.
The Portuguese diplomatic service was supposed to ask for the Lisbon government’s specific consent to grant visas to certain categories of applicants, as the country trod a careful path of neutrality, but Sousa Mendes gave out visas on his own initiative.
Leah Sills, a board director of the Sousa Mendes Foundation in the United States, said she flew in for the ceremony “to be able to honor the man that rescued my father and my grandparents” on May 24, 1940.
“It’s been just a beautiful experience,” she said.
Álvaro Sousa Mendes, a grandson of Aristides Sousa Mendes, said his family had seen an ambition fulfilled.
“This was a ceremony we had been requesting for a long time,” he said. “Finally he was recognized ... with National Pantheon honors.”
Breaking the rules got Sousa Mendes fired from the diplomatic service, with public shame attaching to his family at the time. He died in poverty in 1954.
Decades later, he won recognition for his key role in saving people from the Nazis.
In 1966, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, recognized Sousa Mendes as a “Righteous among the Nations.”
Last year, he drew praise from Pope Francis, and last March the US Senate in a motion saluted “the humanitarian and principled work” of Sousa Mendes.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that he earned recognition in Portugal, with authorities posthumously granting him accolades.
In 2017, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa bestowed Portugal’s highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Liberty, on Sousa Mendes.
Last year, the Portuguese parliament voted to honor the former diplomat at the National Pantheon by placing there a plaque and a tomb without his body. Sousa Mendes wanted to be buried at his birthplace near Viseu, in northern Portugal.
Of the 19 historical figures entombed at the National Pantheon, 12 contain the person’s remains.

More Middle East personalities could be next Madame Tussauds Dubai wax models

Updated 19 October 2021

More Middle East personalities could be next Madame Tussauds Dubai wax models

  • The museum opened its 25th branch in Dubai last week

DUBAI: Additional Middle East personalities could join the list of famous Arab figures on display at Madame Tussauds Dubai.

“We listen to our customers; we listen to their feedback. So, we will always be updating the figures and enhancing the products,” Sanaz Kollsrud, general manager of Madame Tussauds Dubai, told Arab News.

The museum opened its 25th wax attraction in the city on Oct.14, making it the brand’s first branch in the Middle East. 

The famous attraction has a total of 16 figures from the Middle East region. These include talents from the music industry — such as Lebanese singers Nancy Ajram and Maya Diab — and athletes that were made exclusively for the branch in Dubai.

“At the moment, Madame Tussauds has 25 wax attractions around the world, including the US, Europe, and Asia. I’m sure that the brand will look at opportunities to expand at a later stage,” Kollsrud said.

Dubai has been a perfect choice for the Middle East branch, as it is a global tourist destination. The general manager said the museum is also located near a major attraction in the city, Ain Dubai, and is surrounded by a variety of retail and dining options.

 Donald and Melania Trump at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)

When asked how the museum chooses the figures it wants to display, Kollsrud said there is a lot of research behind figure selection, including customer research.

“It took about 18 months to put together a figure list, during which we looked at the popularity of the celebrities regionally and globally, especially within the UAE,” she said.

To keep the figures clean and protected, a team of artists works daily to make sure the statues are in perfect shape, the general manager said.

Lewis Hamilton at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)

She added that a team of 20 artists completes one wax figure within four to seven months. 

They even insert real hair strands, which can cost $190,605.

"There is a sitting involved with the talent, where they come and we do around 500 measurements, including head to toe," Kollsrud said.

The tourist destination consists of seven themed rooms and includes over 60 lifelike wax figures.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)


15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

Updated 19 October 2021

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

  • The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday
  • Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake

DEHRADUN: At least 15 people died and over a dozen were missing after landslides and flash floods triggered by several days of heavy rain hit northern India, officials said Tuesday.
Forecasters have also warned of more heavy rains in the coming days in the southern state of Kerala where floods have already killed at least 27 people since Friday.
Officials in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand said 10 people were killed in fresh landslides on Tuesday after five died in similar incidents on Monday.
Five of the deceased were killed after a cloudburst — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered a landslide, completely burying a house along with its inhabitants in the town of Nainital early Tuesday.
“We have recovered five bodies from the disaster site and a further search is on,” local official Prateek Jain told AFP.
Another landslide in the northern Almora district left five people dead after huge rocks and a wall of mud demolished and engulfed their home.
The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday, predicting “heavy” to “very heavy” rainfall in the region for the next two days.
The weather office said several areas were drenched by more than 400 mm (16 inches) of rainfall on Monday, causing landslides and flooding.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
More than 100 tourists were also stuck inside a resort in Ramgarh after the overflowing Kosi river deluged several localities.
Landslides are a regular danger in India’s Himalayan north, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame construction work on hydroelectric dams and deforestation.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
In the south, large parts of Kerala have been battered by floods and landslides since late last week, leaving at least 27 people dead.
Many dams in the state were nearing the danger mark and authorities were evacuating thousands to safer locations as major rivers overflowed.
India’s weather office said heavy rains will lash the state in the next two days after a brief reprieve on Tuesday.

Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

Updated 19 October 2021

Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

  • Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was rare US envoy able to develop cordial rapport with Taliban 
  • US secretary of state says Khalilzad’s deputy and longtime Biden aide Thomas West would take over as special envoy

WASHINGTON: Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran US envoy whose months of patient hotel-ballroom diplomacy helped end the US war in Afghanistan but failed to prevent a Taliban takeover, resigned on Monday.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad defended his record but acknowledged that he came up short and said he wanted to step aside during the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy.”
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” he wrote. “The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks.”
Born in Afghanistan, the dapper 70-year-old academic turned US diplomat took senior positions as part of the inner circle of former president George W. Bush, becoming the US ambassador to Kabul and then Baghdad and the United Nations.
As former president Donald Trump itched to end America’s longest war in Afghanistan, he brought back Khalilzad, who led exhaustive talks with the Taliban — without including the US-backed government in Kabul.
Those talks led to a February 2020 agreement in which US troops would leave the following year.
But peace negotiations between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul failed to gain traction, and the government that the United States built over 20 years crumbled within days as US troops left.
Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was a rare US diplomat able to develop a cordial rapport with Taliban leaders whose regime was toppled by the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks over its welcome to Al-Qaeda.
Khalilzad, despite his Republican affiliation, was kept in place when Democratic President Joe Biden defeated Trump and decided to go ahead with the withdrawal.
Khalilzad soon became a lightning rod for criticism, with even his superiors in the Biden administration — while voicing respect for him personally — faulting the diplomacy behind the 2020 agreement.
Blinken said that Khalilzad’s deputy, Thomas West, would take over as the special envoy.
West is a longtime aide to Biden, serving on his staff when he was vice president. West has worked for years on South Asia policy including on the US-India civilian nuclear deal.
Shortly before Khalilzad’s resignation became public, the State Department said the United States would not be able to attend a new session called Tuesday by Russia that also includes China and Pakistan, historically the Taliban’s primary backer.
After Trump ended US opposition to speaking to the Taliban, Khalilzad engineered the release from a Pakistani jail of the group’s co-founder Mullah Baradar, seen as a figure who could deliver on promises, and spent months with the largely rural rebels in a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital Doha.
But pictures of him smiling with the Taliban earned him heated criticism in Kabul where some in the now-fallen government as well as newly Western-oriented elite berated him and accused him of selling out Afghanistan.
In interviews last month, Khalilzad said that he had reached a deal with the Taliban in which the insurgents would stay out of Kabul and negotiate a political transition.
But Khalilzad said the deal collapsed when president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the Taliban saw a security vacuum.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Khalilzad said that the Taliban fulfilled key parts of the February 2020 agreement including not attacking the departing US troops.
“I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that,” he said.
But with no appetite in the United States for another surge of troops in its longest war, “each year we were losing ground to the Talibs,” he said.
“Time was not on our side.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that Khalilzad failed in that he “equated US withdrawal with peace.”
“Khalilzad handed the keys of Kabul to the Taliban in return for promises everyone knew the Taliban would not keep,” Haqqani said.