By Sultan Anshori and Agustinus Beo Da Costa
DENPASAR, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's holiday island of Bali reopened to foreign tourists after 18 months of pandemic hiatus on Thursday, but the island is lacking one crucial ingredient: international flights.
The government recently announced Bali's reopening after a sharp fall in coronavirus cases since July, when Indonesia was Asia's COVID-19 epicentre.
But new visitors from overseas were nowhere to be seen on Thursday.
Though the island's Ngurah Rai international airport has carried out exercises to prepare for tourists to return, it is not expecting much to happen soon.
"The regulation has just been issued. These things take time. These countries and the visitors need time," Bali governor I Wayan Koster told reporters.
"We hope that by end of October at the latest there will be incoming flights, whether it's a charter or commercial flight as signs of the start of tourism recovery in Bali."
He added that he had received reports that hotels in Bali have started to receive bookings by foreign visitors, mainly from Europe, for November visits.
Known for its surfing, temples, waterfalls and nightlife, Bali drew 6.2 million foreign visitors in 2019, the year before COVID-19 struck, but tight pandemic border restrictions have devastated tourism, which is worth 54% of its economy.
From January to June this year, only 35 foreign tourists entered Bali through its airport.
In downtown Kuta, just off its famous beach, shops and bars were open on Thursday but with only a few customers, while taxi drivers waited outside.
"We're really destitute," said driver Yohanan, 52, waiting on the curb. "We're hoping tourists can come here, but not one has."
The government's preparations could be the reason.
Details about the reopening have been patchy and Indonesia only identified 19 eligible countries late on Wednesday. Those include China, India, Japan, South Korea and several European and Gulf countries.
Thailand began its reopening in July with much fanfare, with the islands of Samui and Phuket welcoming vaccinated tourists from most countries, with hundreds arriving on the opening days. Vietnam will welcome visitors to its Phu Quoc island next month.
But Bali's reopening plan is not yet matched by demand.
I Putu Astawa of the island's tourism agency said hotel reservations were few, adding that the timing was "so sudden".
"They need time to take care of visas and flights," he said.
As well as requiring Bali visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Indonesia has said they must spend their first five days in quarantine, a requirement that rival destinations are phasing out.
Indonesia also requires medical insurance coverage of up to $70,000 for COVID-19 treatment.
Ida Bagus Purwa Sidemen, of the hotel and restaurants association in Bali, said that while the island was ready for tourists, it "does not mean all the guests suddenly visit".
(Reporting by Sultan Anshori in Denpasar and Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta with additional reporting by Bernadette Christina and Stanley Widianto; writing by Kate Lamb and Fransiska Nangoy; editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich)