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Tourists preparing to board a fast boat from Sanur beach, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, this month. Some visitors obtain visas under false pretences and breach their conditions by working while there, as the recent expulsions of American Kristen Gray and Russian Sergei Kosenko have revealed. Photo: AFP

How weak law enforcement in Bali lets digital nomads get away with breaking Indonesian rules

  • Two women admit finding ways around Indonesia’s temporary tourist entry ban to get to Bali, where authorities recently made high-profile expulsions of visitors
  • Digital nomads may be flouting the rules en masse but enforcement is weak, a lawyer explains. However, there are signs that may be changing
Dave Smith

A digital nomad from Australia enters Bali on a business visa, despite having no intention of doing business while in Indonesia. It allows her to stay on the island for up to six months.

“It cost me US$580 – the paperwork was a joke,” she says, requesting anonymity. “Getting permission to leave Australia was 100 times harder.”

She makes no bones about what she has done. “The visa system in Indonesia is absolutely corrupt and I acknowledge I am part of that.”

A Canadian woman tells a similar story. “I was pregnant at the time and my boyfriend works in Bali. He found a visa agent who had contacts …,” she says. This woman paid US$2,133. “I know I got ripped off but I was really desperate. I did not want to give birth alone.”

If [digital nomads] ... are gaining benefit from activities with businesses in Indonesia – it’s illegal if they do that on a tourist visa. That means anyone who is a blogger or travel writer
Philo Dellano, a managing partner of PNB Immigration Law Firm in Jakarta

Authorities are aware of wide-scale breaches by tourists of labour laws in Bali but lack the resources to take action, says Philo Dellano, a managing partner of the PNB Immigration Law Firm in Jakarta.

“There are only 10 immigration investigators working in Bali. They cannot possibly police so many people,” Dellano says.

An American self-described digital nomad, Kristen Gray, at the Indonesian Immigration office in Denpasar, Bali, last week. She and her partner were later deported. Photo:Antara Foto/Fikri Yusuf/ via Reuters

They did catch a couple of people recently, however, and deported them – making headlines around the world.


Last week, an American tourist was deported, along with her partner, from Bali after sparking outrage among Indonesians with comments she posted on Twitter about how to get around the country’s temporary entry ban for tourists, implemented to stem the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and how to work there illegally.

Kristen Gray, who had been living on the Indonesian holiday island for a year, boasted about her inexpensive luxury lifestyle there and described Bali as “queer-friendly”. She also promoted an e-book in which she shares tips on how to live and work online in Indonesia as a digital nomad – a term for remote workers and freelancers, predominantly from the West, who can earn a living from anywhere with a fast and reliable internet connection.

Meet the digital nomads stranded in Asia because of the coronavirus

After an eight-hour interrogation at Denpasar Immigration Office, Gray was charged with having “disseminated information disturbing to the public”, although she claims she is being scapegoated for her sexual orientation. “I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT,” she told reporters.

Authorities have used a 2008 law that prohibits the “broadcasting of pornography containing deviant sexual intercourse”, which includes homosexual sex, to target LGBT people in Indonesia. However, LGBT activity is quietly tolerated in Bali, as evidenced by the number of bars, resorts and spas on the island catering to that demographic.

Although the broadcasting of her sexuality may have been a factor, it seems likely that Gray’s exposing of two open secrets known to – and exploited by – tens of thousands of digital nomads living in Bali proved much more problematic for the authorities.

There were few face masks to be seen as these tourists enjoyed themselves at a sunset bar on Bali’s Seminyak beach in October. Photo: Dave Smith

“We decided to deport them for sharing misleading information and illegal methods to gain entry to Bali during Covid-19 on her Twitter account,” said Jamaruli Manihuruk, head of the Bali Regional Office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, hinting at the wider issues.

The day after Gray’s story broke, Sergei Kosenko, a Russian Instagram star with five million followers, also received a deportation order. In December, Kosenko had posted a video of himself riding a scooter without a helmet off a jetty into the sea. Activists accused him of polluting the ocean, but he was targeted for having worked illegally, because of the money high-profile Instagramers such as Kosenko earn from product placement, and staging a hotel party in breach of health regulations.

“We reminded him that he must comply with government regulations regarding residence permits, business permits and tax obligations for personal revenue in accordance with regulations,” authorities said in a statement. “The Bali Immigration Service will deport Sergei.”

Russian Sergei Kosenko is escorted by immigration officers in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Sunday, prior to being deported from the Indonesian resort island. Photo: AP

The first secret Gray exposed concerns tourists working online illegally in Bali. The American claims she is innocent despite selling her e-book, Our Bali Life is Yours, for US$30 while living on the island – because she did not get paid in Indonesian rupiah.


However, Dellano, at the PNB Immigration Law Firm, disagrees.

“If [digital nomads] are working for foreign companies or individuals and doing all their research online or just talking with people overseas, then that’s OK,” he says. “But if they are gaining benefit from activities with businesses in Indonesia – it’s illegal if they do that on a tourist visa. That means anyone who is a blogger or travel writer or anyone who uses Instagram for commercial purposes – whether they get paid in cash or receive a free night’s stay at a hotel – they’re breaking the law.”

A lone tourist next to a stone gateway in Kuta, Bali, in March. Photo: Dave Smith

The second, more egregious secret Gray exposed explains how tens of thousands have circumvented the temporary ban on tourists entering Indonesia. The most recent data from Statistics Indonesia shows that 154,000 tourists arrived in Indonesia in October, followed by 175,000 in November.


Exemptions exist for medical and diplomatic workers, permanent residents, and foreigners who already had limited stay permits before the ban came into effect.

Those who have managed to circumvent the ban include American former world champion surfer Kelly Slater, who spent a month travelling around Indonesia catching waves late last year.

Gray knew the loopholes, and was selling the information in her e-book, as well as through online consultations at US$50 per hour. “We include direct links to our visa agents and how to go about getting into Indonesia during Covid,” she promised in a tweet that has since been deleted.


Bali’s central immigration office refused to comment for this article, saying visa applications were processed by the ministry in Jakarta, which did not respond to inquiries. But Gray’s actions may have ruffled feathers. Although the Ministry of Law and Human Rights has records of 162 foreigners having been deported from Bali in 2020 and 2021 – most for visa violations – it appears immigration authorities are starting to crack down further on offenders.

Last week, a two-strikes-and-you’re out deportation protocol for foreigners caught in public without face masks was announced by the Badung Regency, the administrative region in the island’s south that encompasses the most popular tourist haunts.

Tourists unmasked on Balangan Beach, in Bali, in May. Photo: Wawan Kurniawan/Opn Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In September, to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Indonesia, the Southeast Asian country worst affected by the pandemic, it was announced that anyone caught not wearing a mask in public would be liable to a 100,000 rupiah (US$7) fine. The amount is equal to the average daily wage in Indonesia, but is not a sufficient deterrent for tourists who work online or who hold savings in foreign bank accounts.

A spokesman for the Public Order Agency in Badung told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that 80 per cent of those fined in the past few months had been tourists.

The claim is anecdotal – and a survey by Indonesian news agency Antara found that only 60 per cent of Indonesians wear face masks in public all of the time – but repeated images of carefree tourists buzzing around the island on scooters without face masks or helmets during the pandemic has pushed the famous tolerance of the Balinese people to its limit.

“Those who violate the law will be entered into immigration records,” said Eko Budianto, head of the Immigration Division of the Bali Regional Office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. “If in the future they violate again, the immigration authorities will take firm action by deporting the foreigner.”