Expats flee Bali as virus crashes Asia’s top luxury villa market

Linda J. Dodson

DENPASAR — With a private pool, walled tropical gardens and a large terrace overlooking a lush green river valley in central Bali, Kadek Wisana’s three-bedroom villa usually goes for $100 a night.

Now Wisana has slashed the rent to $400 a month and still he can’t find tenants, with over three-quarters of Bali’s 100,000-strong expat population fleeing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which has devastated the Indonesian resort island’s tourism industry.

“Business was good,” said Wisara. “It was occupied most of the time until the coronavirus stopped tourism.”

Wisara is one of scores of Bali villa owners offering discounts of up to 85% in a desperate bid to earn even a small amount of rent to help pay the bills.

One the world’s best performing real estate classes, there are around 4,000 luxury villas on the island — more than any other Asia-Pacific location according to a 2019 report by villa-finder.com — which fetched an average $220 per night before the onset of the pandemic.

But double-digit rental yields and astronomical capital gains may now be a thing of the past.

One four-bedroom whitewashed Spanish-style villa in the beachfront enclave of Seminyak, which comes complete with housekeeping staff, is now being offered for $1,100 a month, while the owners of a two-storey townhouse in Ubud are asking for $500 a month. Last year both properties were fetching more than three times as much.

Even with such generous discounts, owners are receiving few enquiries after Indonesia stopped issuing free visa-on-arrivals to tourists on March 20 to slow down the spread of the virus through Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

While some mathematical models have predicted a viral doomsday scenario across the archipelago nation of 270 million people, Indonesia has so far reported only 32,033 infections and 1,883 deaths.

Some owners are offering their villas for free, to help ensure they are not overrun by burglars and landowners, both sometimes occurrences in Bali. (Photo by Ian Neubauer) 

“There are very few foreigners left, perhaps only a few thousand Australians and perhaps the same number of Europeans,” says Terje Nilsen, Norwegian director of Seven Stones Indonesia, a property consultancy that caters to foreign investors.

And it’s not Bali’s rental market which is being hammered, with the COVID-19 crisis also hitting property values just as hard.

According to Australian property agent Matthew Georgeson, who has worked on the island since 2005, Bali property has been one of the best performing real estate asset classes in the world.

“On the main street of [the west-coast surfing mecca of] Canggu, land values have increased 40 to 50 times in the last 10 years,” Georgeson told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Almost overnight, the coronavirus has turned those coveted villas into non-performing assets, with many owners even offering their villas to friends and acquaintances for free just to help ward off burglars and attempted seizures by landowners — both sometime occurrences in Bali.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” says investment consultant Nilsen. “The rental market is gone.”

Still, Agus Astawa, head of the Nawa Cita Regional Tourism Board in Bali, an independent state-funded body that promotes investment in Indonesia, sees things in a more positive light.

“There is nothing wrong with the market, it’s only in hibernation,” said Astawa. “For Indonesian investors, some banks are offering mortgage holidays. For the strong foreign investor, the only issue is cash flow. They just need to sit back and wait until things get back to normal.”

Valerio Tocci, an Italian builder who co-owns around 50 villas in Bali, is doing exactly that. “About 30% of our villas are occupied by 20-year leaseholders who paid full price,” Tocci said.

“The other 70% per cent I have taken off the market. We paid cash up-front for everything, so we have no bank knocking on our door and we are not losing much money, only maintenance fees. It is not logical to rent them out cheap. I prefer to take cover and wait for the market to bounce back.”

Astawa believes a recovery is not far away.

“If we listen to the experts and our people are disciplined, in two or three months the gears of business can start moving again and by the end of the year, confidence will be restored,” he said.

Signs of an economic recovery are already evident in China, now the largest source country for tourists in Bali.

“The Chinese should be the first travellers to come back to alleviate the offset,” says Bill Barnet of C9 Hotelworks, a market research firm based in the Thai resort of Phuket. “Asian economies like Taiwan and South Korea will follow because they are much less sensitive to pandemics than the West.”

But with Australians — the island’s second-largest source of tourists and the most common renters of villas — not even allowed to leave Australia before the end of the year, and Europe also still reeling from the impact of the pandemic, others are not so optimistic.

“You can’t even get on a plane now and when you can, people will think long and hard about holidaying overseas,” says Georgeson, who is now back on Australia’s Gold Coast after he followed Australian government warnings to return home. “The best case for a partial rebound in Bali is at the end of the year.”

Beyond the supply-side questions is the far more over-reaching issue of how the pandemic will play out in Bali itself, which has only recorded around 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases and four deaths.

But with one of the world’s poorest testing rates — only 940 tests per million in Indonesia compared to 5,380 per million in Thailand and 16,121 in South Korea — medical experts say it’s difficult to explain the low infection rates.

In a worst-case scenario, Bali’s property market may only start to recover once a vaccine becomes widely available up to three years from now.

But in a local economy that depends on tourism for up to 80% of its revenue, such a lengthy economic hibernation could trigger a wave of panic property sales.

“We can’t say anything has crashed yet,” said Georgeson. “That may change if lots of owners start having issues with cash flow in their home countries but for now, I just see people sitting back and waiting.”

The Royal Villa at the Four Seasons Resort in Ubud where Julia Roberts stayed while filming Eat, Pray, Love in 2009. (Photo by Ian Neubauer)

But investment consultant Nilsen says some cracks in the market are already starting to show.

“A few people are telling us they need to sell,” said Nilsen, adding that other crises such as the 2002 Bali bombings and active volcanoes have shown that some expats will always be over-exposed.

Looking ahead to a post-COVID-19 world, Bali may find itself the destination of choice for a new class of digital nomads who have glimpsed the benefits of working from home and don’t want to go back to working in an office.

“Digital nomads are the key market that emerged from our recovery meetings with my partners,” says Will Meyrick, a Scotsman who owns various restaurants and villas in Bali. “When all this is over, a lot more people will want to live outside of cities in places with warm climates like Bali.”

“In the past, we have seen Jakartans with large amounts of cash coming into the market to take advantage and buy up but this time could be different because Jakartans have been affected too,” he said.

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