As a cookbook author, founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, and the woman behind Casa Luna Bali and Honeymoon Guesthouse, Janet DeNeefe has spent the past 30-odd years championing the cuisine and culture of her adopted home. Here, she tells us how her businesses have been adapting to a new reality amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
How is the general situation in Bali these days?
Bali is very quiet right now. There has not been an official lockdown but there is not much happening in Ubud. Most businesses are closed and there are few tourists. Some residents have already returned to their homes overseas. However, there is still a large community of expats in places like Canggu. Being near the sea is always a bonus!
How has the Casa Luna family been coping with the lack of revenue?
Casa Luna has been operating the entire time. We’re struggling to cover our costs but we wanted to keep running. As an iconic Ubud establishment, we felt we had a duty to stay open and guests have thanked us for doing this. We have been serving meals, doing deliveries and we still sell our breads, pastries, and cakes. Our other businesses are closed, except for the Honeymoon Bakery, and my son has started selling pizza over the weekend from Indus.
Tell us a little about the Casa Luna Staff Support Fund—what has the response been like so far?
By early April, we realized we were going to have to shut most of our businesses and that, sadly, we would not be able to cover wages as we have around 200 employees. So I decided to start a staff fundraiser because many of our guests have developed lovely relationships with them and people truly care about them. They’re like family. Guests were also writing to me at that time to ask how they might assist. I put out a plea and was bowled over by the generous response. Five months later, we are still providing food packages for the staff.
You founded the Ubud Readers and Writers’ Festival as a way to bring people back to Bali after the 2002 bombing. What lessons from that recovery period do you think are applicable to these current times?
This Covid era is slightly different to the bombings because it is a global issue, not just Bali-based. I guess at the end of the day, it’s about the confidence to travel. Once borders and airports are open there is no guarantee that people will want to leave home. The key, like the Festival, is to lure them with special deals or something exciting. And whatever it is, it has to have meaning and has to be from the heart.
Bali reopened to domestic tourists at the end of last month. Have guests begun trickling back into Casa Luna? And what proportion are Indonesians and/or expats based in cities like Jakarta?
It seems we have already opened but I haven’t felt any benefit at this stage. I guess most of my guests are usually from Australia, which is rather limiting right now. I am not convinced that expats from Jakarta feel like traveling yet. I have heard that some Jakartans have been driving to Bali at the moment to avoid flying. Bali has been very diligent in following Covid protocols so everyone is ready but it’s still rather empty.
There’s now an obsession with health and safety protocols and social distancing measures. What will change when it comes to cooking classes and other facets of the guest experience at Casa Luna and the Honeymoon Guesthouse?
The thought of teaching with a mask on, or with masked students, does not appeal to me so I am considering holding classes online. Casa Luna is already following Covid protocols and when Honeymoon Guesthouse reopens we will follow all the necessary steps. We will also offer more personalized experiences where possible. Welcome drinks will become a turmeric tonic and menus will focus even more on good health. I’m crazy about the principle of food as medicine so that part is easy for me! I am looking at essential oils for the rooms too that are calming for the mind and good for relaxation. It’s all about wellbeing now.
What are your thoughts on holding the Ubud Readers and Writers’ Festival in October?
We have rebranded the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival this year and it will be fully online. It’s fun learning new technology actually. That’s one good thing about Covid! It has forced us to change and embrace innovation. We will run our new event from October 29 to November 8 with pre-and-post sessions all year.
Some people in the travel industry are seeing this pandemic as an opportunity for a reset. Do you have a vision for the future of tourism in Bali?
I guess we all dream of more responsible tourism in Bali that adheres to eco-friendly and efficient civic practices, with measures to benefit the island and its sustainability. I worry that tons of plastic hand sanitizer bottles will now replace plastic water bottles in the rivers and ocean. But I think for Bali its absolute strength is its beautiful culture and warm people who are eternally optimistic and kind. If we could also somehow focus on spirituality, wisdom, and the environment, it would be rather lovely.