Trouble in paradise as Bali loses patience with Russians, Ukrainians fleeing war

Trouble in paradise as Bali loses patience with Russians, Ukrainians fleeing war. By @CNN’s @heatherchen_.

Trouble, paradise, Bali, patience, Russians, Ukrainians

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.

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.

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.”

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