Indonesian authorities on Thursday deported an American woman and her partner who had been living in Bali during the pandemic after a series of tweets encouraging others to join her as a digital nomad sparked a debate among Indonesians about foreigner privilege.
American Kristen Gray, 28, and her partner Saundra Alexander were accused of violating local immigrations laws and “spreading unsettling information,” which included depicting the popular holiday island as LGBTQ-friendly.
Both women were said to have been flown to the capital Jakarta overnight and then boarded a flight back to Los Angeles, with a stopover in Tokyo. They have since been banned from returning to Indonesia for at least six months.
“The concerned foreign national is suspected to have done business by selling an e-book and putting up consultation fees on traveling to Bali, which means she can be subject to sanctions according to the 2011 Immigration Law,” the local authorities said in a statement distributed to the media.
In a series of now-deleted tweets, Gray, a freelance graphic designer, accused the authorities of targeting the couple for portraying the island as “queer-friendly.”
But Indonesian social media was already on fire in response to Gray’s lengthy thread about moving to Bali, famed for its sandy beaches and ancient island temples. She was believed to have arrived on a one-way flight in late 2019 with her partner, after spending most of the year out of work.
In the tweets, Gray said that Bali was “the perfect medicine” for her physical and mental health and went on to list benefits of living on an “island paradise” during the pandemic.
“The island has been amazing because of our elevated lifestyle at a much lower cost of living,” she gushed in a now-deleted tweet that drew more than 24,000 likes.
She then went on to list a series of “major perks” of her Bali move, which included safety, lower cost of living, a more luxurious lifestyle and local queer-friendly and Black communities. She also encouraged others to follow suit, which is where the anger appears to have started. She shared links to visa agents and advice about how one could go about entering Indonesia despite the raging pandemic and attempted to sell the advice for $30 in an e-book titled Our Bali Life is Yours.
“When I think about it, it’s super clear that the move was intuitive. Bali is where I was supposed to be through it all,” Gray said.
“There was an energy about the U.S. that I had to take a break from and Bali was the perfect medicine.”
Though not as ravaged by the pandemic as the U.S., Indonesia is still struggling to contain the coronavirus and remains the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia. Deaths in the sprawling archipelago are nearing 27,000 as daily cases continue to soar despite the launch of an aggressive—and controversial—vaccination campaign by the government.
Health ministry officials also reported a whopping 14,224 new infections last weekend, the country’s highest single-day rise since the start of the pandemic.
The pandemic’s impact has been devastating in Bali because of its heavy reliance on tourism and foreign travelers. Hotels, restaurants and prominent tourist destinations have closed, leaving thousands of local Balinese workers stranded and struggling to make a living as COVID-19 rages on.
Indonesians across social media moved swiftly to condemn Gray and her partner, who they accused of overstaying their visas, being “privileged”, “tone deaf” and “culturally insensitive” during a difficult time for the country.
“I was fucking livid at her audacity for plugging her tips and tricks on how to cheat the visa system to live an “elevated” life in Bali while [millions like myself] are stuck here in the closet in fear of persecution and struggling to make ends meet during COVID-19,” wrote a queer Indonesian Twitter user. “Her audacity to overstay her visa, work from here and not pay the obligatory income taxes for foreigners who stayed more than 6 months, is grating on my nerves.”
“How has she ensured that moving to Bali and encouraging others to do so isn’t contributing to gentrification (raising prices so that natives aren't kicked out or forced to learn English as opposed to expats learning Bahasa),” another user wrote.
Gray was summoned to the local immigration office, where she said she did not overstay her visa and that charges against her were personal.
“I am not guilty. I put out a public statement about LGBT rights and am being deported because of it,” she said. Her lawyer Erwin Siregar reiterated the couple “did not break any laws” and that their deportations were undeserved.
“Their goal was to help people come to Bali after coronavirus restrictions were lifted. They wanted to persuade tourists to return to Indonesia without a cent of payment,” he told the New York Times after the couple’s arrest earlier this week.
“We should be thanking them, not deporting them.”
Gray’s legal team could not be immediately reached for additional comment despite repeated calls from VICE World News.
Bali remains closed to tourists but foreigners on the island have made headlines recently for flouting mandatory health and safety rules on the island—deliberately not wearing face masks because of low fines and light punishment.
While Gray’s characterization of Bali as a queer-friendly place led to trouble from authorities, some Indonesians maintained that the real issue was in western attitudes towards gentrification and privilege.
“The problem won’t disappear just because Gray is gone. Bali’s foreigner problem is a very complex one,” said Eka Apriliani, a tourism manager from the island’s capital city of Denpasar.
“Bali is seen as a tourist paradise but there are many of us who call it home. There are good foreigners who assimilate into our culture but there are also many who are disrespectful and disregard our way of life, beliefs and even personal safety at the expense for them to escape their own troubles back home.”
“It’s selfish and an extremely problematic narrative to have.”