BINTAN: Located at the northern side of Indonesia’s Bintan island, Banyan Tree Bintan used to be the place to go for those who want some time off while relaxing on white, sandy beaches.
As it is just an hour away by ferry from Singapore, the resort's guests were mostly Singaporeans.
But when CNA visited last month, an empty beach indicated that the all-villa resort was mostly unoccupied amid the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced borders to close.
From slashing prices, targeting convention guests and even proposing a dedicated green lane with Singapore, resorts on the island are doing all they can to make ends meet and position themselves for the eventual recovery.
“We had started not to accept guests in February. We reopened and accepted local guests again in mid-August, like guests from Batam and Tanjung Pinang,” Mr Ibnu Maskur, the room division manager of Banyan Tree Bintan recounted.
In Bintan, there are three hotels under the Banyan Tree group. Apart from Banyan Tree Bintan, Angsana Resort and Cassia Bintan are also under the same management.
When the resorts were closed, only 50 per cent of their staff were on duty while the remaining were furloughed and called to work four times a month, Mr Maskur said.
When they reopened in August, the resort immediately slashed prices to attract local tourists.
Banyan Tree Bintan’s smallest villa for example is now priced at 1.75 million rupiah (US$124) per night, including breakfast. This would usually cost 6 million rupiah.
The biggest private pool villa is now going for 4 million rupiah per night, down from the usual rate of 16 million rupiah.
The move has helped Banyan Tree to survive. Out of their 67 villas, 20 of them are usually occupied during the weekends.
But the management has decided to close Angsana Resort until mid-2021, while Cassia has continued to operate normally as it houses workers from a nearby oil and gas company.
“The effect of COVID-19 could be felt drastically, especially by our employees because usually we received full salary and extra bonus, but now that has reduced,” Mr Maskur said.
To ensure that the employees still have some income, they have now set up a bazaar every weekend on Cassia’s beach so the workers can sell food or goods to get extra cash.
The buyers are usually Cassia’s guests or locals living nearby.
Mr Maskur noted that it has helped the employees as they can earn about 1 million rupiah from just selling fritters.
MICE TO ATTRACT GUESTS
A similar situation is being faced by Anmon, a desert-theme glamping resort in Lagoi, Bintan.
Founded in 2019, it has 120 rooms which used to see guests from Singapore staying over.
“Before the pandemic, 95 per cent of our guests were people from Singapore. And only a few guests were locals. There were some, but they were the minority,” said hotel manager Agi Arisetyawan.
Its occupancy rate was about 80 per cent to 90 per cent before the pandemic, but COVID-19 forced it to cease operation temporarily from March until July.
“Unfortunately, we had to release a lot of our employees,” Mr Arisetyawan told CNA.
Anmon now has about 50 employees, down from about 120 people at the beginning of the year.
In August, Anmon reopened for domestic tourism and saw an occupancy rate of about 15 per cent.
“But thank God, in September, we saw an increase in occupancy. It was 30 per cent. In October, we received many groups.
“We realised that we had to target the local market,” Mr Arisetyawan said, adding that the October occupancy rate hit 40 per cent.
Other than giving discounts, Anmon offered free access to their activities such as water sports and games, a move which The Residence Bintan by Cenizaro in Gunung Kijang, southeast of Bintan also took.
Fortunately for Anmon, it managed to survive as government institutions decided to hold meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) at its premises.
The tourism ministry for example booked the entire place for two days in October and when CNA visited in November, the resort was getting ready to host a seminar held by the health ministry.
“We are not profiting yet, but at least this can cover the costs to pay our staff and other operational costs,” said Mr Arisetyawan.
To ensure guests will keep coming, Anmon realised that the cleanliness of the resort is key to gain trust from people that it is safe to stay at its glamping site.
It has implemented COVID-19 safety protocols and received a score of 100 per cent of Cleanliness, Health, Safety, Environment Sustainability (CHSE), which is an audit method conducted and certified by the tourism ministry to assure guests are protected during their stay.
HEALTH PROTOCOLS ACCORDING TO INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS
In fact, all hotels and resorts in Lagoi must adhere to COVID-19 protocols, said Mr Abdul Wahab, the Group General Manager of Bintan Resort Cakrawala which is the developer and manager of the area.
Out of 15 hotels in Lagoi Bintan, as of December, half of them are accepting guests.
“We have all the protocols that have been approved by the regency government, also by the Indonesian COVID-19 task force and also by the World Health Organization. So our COVID-19 protocols are in line with the standard of the national and the international,” he said.
Apart from the basic mandatory masking, washing hands and keeping a safe distance, Bintan Resorts Cakrawala has set up contact tracing stations at various areas. When at these stations, guests are required to scan a barcode to register their presence.
Should there be guests who arrive from abroad, they must provide a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Isolation rooms are also available in every hotel in case there is a guest who feels unwell.
“Bintan Resort has already been inspected and certified by the tourism ministry of Indonesia to be clean and safe, we got that certification," said Mr Wahab.
BINTAN-SINGAPORE GREEN LANE?
Bintan Resort Cakrawala aims to do more in 2021, by possibly having a special travel lane with Singapore.
“We want to open up to Singapore. We are now in the process to engage SG Clean, Singapore Clean consultant, to conduct training for us, and also to help to generate, formulate an SOP (standard operating procedure) and to help us to monitor our COVID-19 activities,” said Mr Wahab.
There would be a proposed automated gate for visitors from Singapore to reduce physical contact upon arrival and departure at Bandar Bentan Telani ferry terminal, he said.
There is also a proposal for regular disinfecting on the ferries and every visitor will have luggage disinfected upon arrival.
Currently, the reciprocal green lane arrangement for business and official travel between Singapore and Indonesia only applies for those going through Soekarno-Hatta international airport and Batam's international ferry terminal.
In 2019, Bintan Resort Cakrawala saw the arrival of more than 1.3 million people out of which close to 1 million arrived internationally, especially from Singapore, Mr Wahab said.
This year, the arrival in Bintan Resort is only 15 per cent of last year's, he added.
Since Bintan Resort Cakrawala has its own ferry terminal, Bandar Bentan Telani, Mr Wahab said it could help create a travel bubble involving the Tanah Merah ferry terminal in Singapore for staycations within Lagoi, Bintan.
The resort would ensure that all the staff are free from COVID-19 by conducting PCR tests every two weeks.
They hope that by working with the same Singaporean consultant which approved staycations in the city-state, Bintan Resorts could be open to Singapore by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
"We anticipate Bintan resort can open with Singapore for staycations as we have a protocol with SG Clean, we have engaged SG clean certified consultant to help us with a green bubble," said Mr Wahab adding that they are in communication with Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) and Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Head of Bintan’s tourism agency Wan Rudi Iskandar hopes that there will be an increase in tourists in 2021, and they are trying to achieve this by emphasising CHSE.
He is also in favour of having a dedicated tourism green lane between Lagoi and Singapore, especially because the former has so far not recorded any COVID-19 case.
“Our next step which we will do next year is for the Indonesian government to open the door, government to government, between Bintan and Singapore so that the international tourists will return because Lagoi, Bintan is a green zone,” said Mr Iskandar.
When interviewed by CNA earlier this month, Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia Anil Kumar Nayar said: “At the moment, we have not discussed this with our Indonesian friends in terms of tourism, restarting tourism flows in Singapore and in Indonesia, obviously because the public health risks are still there.
“But I’m sure at the right time we will talk about initiatives such as this."