I boarded a nearly empty boat to take me to the Gili Islands, three tiny islands in Indonesia that were devastated by a series of earthquakes in July and August of this year. The earthquake damaged a large majority of the buildings, and travel advisories rung out from all around the globe warning tourists not to venture to what was once a haven for scuba divers, honeymooners, and partiers.
“It’ll be rubble and rolling blackouts, why would you go?” Some of my friends speculated.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find a reliable, unbiased source to tell me how the Gili Islands would be once I arrived. Almost everyone who touted that the Gili Islands were safe, amazing, and ready for visitors worked in tourism. Facebook messages to acquaintances who worked there as dive instructors went unanswered.
It was only once I started to see everyday travelers report back on their positive time island hopping around the Gilis that I felt a semblance of hope that the Gili Islands would be just as magical as I remembered in 2014, the last time I visited.
How fast could these little islands rebuild in just three months?
My boat arrived at Gili Air, the first stop of my island hop excursion. The public boats were busy loading and unloading bricks and building materials from their wooden boats.
I walked onto the main road and immediately noted the tidiness of the road leading from the harbor around the rest of the island, like a ring. Restaurants, dive schools, boutiques, and guest houses all sported “Buka” (open) signs on their window fronts. Divemasters shuttled air tanks to and from their dive boats. A group of yogis rolled out their mats on the top of a bamboo terrace. A man selling fresh juice and bamboo straws gestured at the menu.
The island was indeed open.
In between the homestays and shops were piles of concrete ruin and construction sites — but not nearly as many as you’d initially think. Everything else was kept so clean, eventually I stopped noticing the damaged buildings as I cycled from one spot to the next.
Despite the low buzz of travelers going about their hobbies on the islands, the islands were nowhere near maximum capacity. Almost every beanbag chair, table, and lounge chair sat empty, even at sunset. Menus blew open and closed with the sea breeze. After 7:30 pm, most of the island felt like a ghost town.
Where is everyone? I’ve been to Indonesia during the low season, but I’ve never seen a typical tourist spot so empty.
Low season coupled with the fear associated with the earthquakes delivered a one-two punch to the Gili Islands. People simply haven’t come back since the earthquakes hit.
Also, the fact that the semi-close island of Nusa Penida is growing in popularity among travelers acting like a magnet for the same type of tourists who would have once gone to the Gilis.
Over the week, I cycled paths without having to ring my bell, got five-star service at one-star restaurants, enjoyed the solitude of being the only guest in my homestay, and sipped cocktails on a beach to myself. I felt guilty walking along a flawless stretch of sand to myself knowing that many of the locals could desperately use the tourism. But doesn’t everyone dream of having a beach all to themselves? When I wanted companionship, I found it in the yoga studios, dive shops, freediving schools, and with the friendly faces who stand in front of every warung.
So if you’re wondering whether the Gilis are ready for tourists? The answer is a resounding yes. All the things you think you’d love about the Gili Islands are still there. The beaches, restaurants, bungalows, dive sites, boutiques, and yoga shalas are all as good as ever — only now, you’ll enjoy them without the crowds.