The truth about Bali: paradise lost, or the other face of tourism – overtourism

I left Bali with mixed feelings. I am trying to remember now what I was thinking before I went there. Perhaps my expectations were wrong. Did I have any expectations, at all? What did I know about Bali before I went there? Well, it was an island within Indonesia, part of the Dutch East Indies until 1949 when Indonesia gained their independence and that was all about it. Then there was this movie Eat, pray and love, that I vaguely remember. I might be completely wrong, and I know there are a lot of you that swear by this movie (and eventually book, but I haven’t read it yet), but it was at the end where Julia Roberts ended up in Ubud finding herself after travelling around the world, wasn’t it? What did I know else? Oh, yes, paradise-like sand beaches, palm trees, cocktails, sunshine. Not to forget the parties and the night life. Bali was a magic word for everybody, associated with some ohs and ahs and the regular jaw-dropping and unconcealed jealousy when I happened to mention to friends and acquaintances that I was going for three weeks to Bali.

Did Bali not live up to my expectations then?

We arrived late in the evening at the airport in Denpasar with a direct flight from Amsterdam. There was a taxi from the hotel that was waiting for us. The plan was to stay a few nights in the South and then head to the north part of the island.

We left our luggage at the hotel and we decided to go out for dinner. We got out of the hotel and there we were in the middle of the honking and the roar of the cars and the scooters. I was overwhelmed. Perhaps, I was too tired after 20 hours of travel, so I thought everything looks better in the morning after I get some sleep. It wasn’t better the next day. It was even worse. There were people walking everywhere on the tiny sidewalk sharing it with the vendors squatting in front of their establishments and the masseuses yelling to potential Balinese massage fans, and the boys asking you quietly whether you want hash or Viagra. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to escape as far as I could from this madness. We made it to our hotel room. And I thought – I am not going to get out for anything in this world.

In the evening we went to see the sunset and the beach was just packed. As if it was an outdoor cinema and the whole town has gathered there to watch the spectacle the setting sun was going to give.

Crowded beach, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, see, beach, sand, many people
Crowded beach in Kuta, Bali

Kuta beach in Bali – how far mass tourism can go? 50 years ago there were only 3 hotels in Bali, now the island is flooded by almost 5 million tourists each year.

What is the toll, tourism had taken on Bali?

Was this the price that Bali had to pay as an up-and-coming tourist destination? Overcrowded beaches, boom in building without any regulation and development plans, waste crisis (yes, there was garbage everywhere, I don’t exaggerate). There were on the one side those paradise-like resorts, the huge air-conditioned glamourous shopping malls, and on the other the tourist slums: shops, hotels, open market stalls, houses built upon each other with dubious materials of dubious quality. And everybody chasing you to sell you anything at any price. Tourists are there to roll the cents – the big milking cow that needs to solve some covert economic problems of the country.

Shopping mall, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, shops, shopping centre
Shopping mall in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

A shiny shopping mall in Kuta – built according Western standards. A piece of “paradise” in the jungle of scooters, taxis, vendors and stray dogs.

Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, busy street, hanging cables, shops
Street in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

The results of uncontrolled growth of tourism – no development plan, absolute commercialism, air pollution, no safety norms.

Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, two buldings
Building without regulations in Kuta, Bali

Which hotel do you prefer, the right or the left one? It doesn’t matter. If you stay in the opposite one, we can shake hands from the balconies!

What does it take not to fall in the trap of overtourism?

I couldn’t help it but to draw a parallel with the country I was born in – Bulgaria. After the fall of the communism, nobody knew how market economy worked and what booming tourism can do both to the community and the nature. All this resulted into Bulgaria earning the image of a destination for binge-drinkers, a cheap alcohol paradise, it left the landscape with numerous abandoned unfinished hotels (it aches me each time I go to the mountains in the south of the country and see those unfinished monsters), overbuilt beaches and the same mentality that tourists shall be milked out to the last drop of their cents.

Bali was heading that downward spiral and Kuta was reaching already the touristic hell at the bottom of it. Is there still hope that the negative course, this island has taken, can be reversed? It takes willingness and understanding that tourism is an industry and it needs to be managed in a sustainable and responsible way.

The other face of Bali

After spending 3 impossible days in Kuta we headed north. It was a long drive. I thought we would never get out of the madness of the South, but eventually the countryside began to change and together with it the traffic subsided. We were getting to the mountains. The road started winding up with such steep inclination at some points that I thought we were just going up vertical, but that wasn’t all. I wasn’t prepared for the downhill act. It felt like a rollercoaster going down on a slow motion. Even after spending two weeks in the North, I still got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I was in the car.

And then there was this different Bali! There were still the scooters on the roads, carrying people to work or to school, and the cars were still honking, but this time only out of necessity, by sharp turns where you couldn’t see whether a vehicle was coming from the opposite direction, and the markets where you could shop like a local and you were not considered a “walking wallet”. A whole new face of Bali unveiled for me. It was everyday-day life and as a tourist and a traveller I could take part into it or just watch it from aside.

Local night market, North Bali, Indonesia, farmers' market, local produce
Local night market in North Bali

Night farmers’ market in Singaraja. 100% guarantee that all produce are fresh, coming from local farms – a preferred place for locals to do groceries.

The beach of Lovina was empty, there were no crowds and it was clean. Some friends told me that a few years ago it was still a dump place for household and any other type of garbage, but obviously the local authorities have done something to change this. Singaraja, the second biggest town in Bali, had also well maintained clean streets, impressive administrative buildings and this air of a modern thriving city.

Lovina Beach, North Bali, Indonesia, black sand beach, pier, sea, green trees
Lovina Beach, North Bali

The black sand beach in Lovina – a nice resort without the crowds and the mass tourism. Hopefully, it will stay like this. They say in high season it gets busier. This photo is taken in October.

Is there still hope for Bali?

I think so, but as I previously said, it requires quite a big effort from local, regional and governmental authorities to manage the development of the tourism, not the impact of it, because then it is too late.

In North Bali I had the luck to meet a lot of local people and to talk to them, I was able to see panoramic views where no bus could ever reach and pour out tourists to take pictures, I could visit local places of interest that people were proud to show us and there were no trinkets or batik sold outside.

It was Bali at its purest – no crowds, no commercialism, no pollution.

Everyday life, Northern Bali, Indonesia, woman with a basket on her head, rain, two walking women
Everyday life in Northern Bali Indonesia

Everyday life goes on in the mountains. If it rains who cares about umbrellas, just take a banana leaf and continue on your way.

This other face of Bali that I saw in the North raised naturally the question:

Was North Bali following Kuta in the downfall?

I couldn’t give an answer myself, so I tried to find a local opinion. I met this energetic young man full of ideas about the development of his region. He was telling me what he wanted to do for his village, but he was quite modest not to tell me what he had already done about it. He had implemented this initiative that each Sunday the streets of the village should be made clean. I saw women sweeping the road between the houses in the mountain on a Sunday afternoon. There was even a competition organized for the cleanest village. The first year his village won it, but the second one they ended as runners-up. He was very kind to reply to my questions. I was searching the answer of the above question.

Putu Surajaya, the mayor of Cempaga, whom I was interviewing, is 39 years old, married. He has one daughter and two sons.

What is the tourism policy of Indonesia? Can Bali decide on their own tourism policy or is it centralized from the government in Jakarta?

Indonesia has their own policy, but the policy is different based on each area. Bali has special policy due to its different culture. For tax purposes, for example, we have one and the same policy throughout Indonesia.

Sea Promenade, Lovina Beach, Bali, Indonesia
Sea Promenade in Lovina Beach, Bali

The sea promenade in Lovina Beach with small shops, restaurants and nice atmosphere. Lovina Beach is a resort town in Northern Bali.

What do you think about the rapid development of the tourism in Bali in the last years? Is the government aware that mass tourism can spoil the island? Are there any steps towards sustainable tourism?

My opinion is that on one side the rapid development of the tourism in Bali is a positive thing, it opens many jobs, a tourist destination can open up with everything it can offer. But we are aware, of course, that the mass tourism can spoil our island. Many buildings appear and many new things come to our island, but we have to take steps to preserve our natural environment and our cultural heritage. But still tourism can be positive for us. Our people will not go outside [the island] for work and certainly we can preserve our culture and customs.

Are you afraid that North Bali might look like Kuta one day? Do you take measures about it?

Yes, we afraid that North Bali, including my village, might look like Kuta, so we try to protect with regulations that not everywhere they can build hotels or villas. Our government has spatial regulation for tourism: hotels/villas can be built only on non-agricultural land, building on agricultural land is not permitted for hotels or villa, and it shall be used only for agriculture and farming. Also it is not permitted to build on temple areas.

How do you approach the tourism in your region? What is the tourism programme of Cempaga? Are there any special developments that you want to share? Can you share some good practices?

We would like to set up our village tourism based on customs and culture tourism in addition, and not only rely on the nice views. On the non-agricultural land we can build hotels/villa, but for the rest it is not permitted. We can do trekking in our forest, we can organize performances of our sacred dance with duplicate instruments on stage, we can offer other programmes like visiting palm sugar production facilities, bamboo handy crafts, etc. We do not have to only sell our land for hotels, but we can also get profit without selling anything.

Sacred dance, Cempaga, North Bali, Indonesia, spiritual dance, stage performance, colourful costumes
Sacred dance of Cempaga, North Bali

The Sacred Dance of the village of Cempaga is performed during special ceremonies. People of Cempaga are very proud of this cultural heritage. Here, a stage version, performed during a local Festival.

What is the impact of tourism on the employment in your region? Are there any regulations on national level regarding employment?

Yes… the impact of tourism on the employment is that our people can easily get jobs, so they will work close to their family. We have regulation that local people have priority by getting a job based on the availability. We also have organized Tourism English course this year to prepare the locals professionally for the job market.

Is tourism contributing to globalization? How do you assess the impact of tourism on the preservation of local traditions and nature?

Tourism is contributing for globalization, but on the other hand tourism can open many jobs. Our people have to take care of the preservation of our local traditions and nature, thus we will be able to show our island to the many visiting tourists. This on its turn will generate income.

So, there was still hope for Bali to preserve its natural assets and cultural and historical heritage. As long as there are people who understand that beside positive impact tourism has also a downside, that growth at any price is not good for any one, and who are able to make a change for the local community, like the mayor of Cempaga, I am sure that Bali can return its status of a paradise on Earth.

Northern Bali, Indonesia, view over the mountains, green vegetation, trees, palm trees
Northern Bali, Indonesia – view from the mountains

A glimpse of inland Bali from the mountains in the North – lush green vegetation, unspoiled nature, clean air. Is this the real Bali?

Is growth the enemy?

No wonder that at one point Bali couldn’t cope anymore with the growth of tourism. Here are some facts. Before 1963 there were only three hotels on the island. According to the Bali Government Tourism Office there were 1,970,000 foreign tourists visiting Bali in 2008, by the end of 2016 this number soared to 4,927,937, which is a growth of 150% in 8 years. Perhaps too fast? Or too uncontrolled?

Northern Bali, Indonesia, tiny road, no cars, green vegetation, top of the mountains
Northern Bali

Somewhere in the mountains in Northern Bali – luckily no buses can reach those places and hardly any cars. The area is rural and there were a lot of farms. No hotels, no tourists.

Luckily enough not only this mayor from a village in the mountains in Bali sees the things in perspective. Also other officials recognize the problem and suggest a way out of it. I couldn’t agree more with Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization, who says:

“Growth is not the enemy… Tourism growth can and should lead to economic prosperity, jobs and resources to fund environmental protection and cultural preservation, as well as community development and progress needs, which would otherwise not be available. It also means that through meeting others we can broaden our horizons, open our minds and our hearts, improve our well-being and be better people; Shaping a better world.

Every growing human activity has a downside to it. The answer should never be to halt the activity… but rather to live up to the challenge and manage it correctly” [press release, UNWTO]

North Bali, Indonesia, sunset, mountains, see, sundown, twilight
Sunset in North Bali, Indonesia

There are many spots in the mountains in Northern Bali where you can enjoy the perfect sunset. The sun goes behind the mountains and the sky is glowing.

This is why I left Bali with mixed feelings. And I wanted to dig further beyond the continuous honking of the cars, the smell of the exhaust gasses, and the garbage piles on the streets. I really hope that the Government of Indonesia is seeing the problem of overtourism and measures will be taken to manage this industry in a sustainable and responsible way.

What can we do as tourists?

We, as tourists, also have a responsibility towards to nature and the people when we travel. We can start by being respectful to the local culture and traditions, by not encouraging any activities that involve wild animals (this includes, but is not limited to, selfie-taking with a giant sedated bat), by trying to buy/use local products, where we are sure that the profit goes to the local community.

There are so many other ways we can be responsible tourists.

What are your thoughts about it? How did you see Bali?

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About Daniela

Daniela is the creator and writer of this travel blog. A writer by nature and occupation and traveller by heart, Daniela will take you to all forgotten corners of Europe and even beyond. She travels with her partner, but his only role is to be the greatest fan of this blog. To learn more, check out the About section.

25 thoughts on “The truth about Bali: paradise lost, or the other face of tourism – overtourism”

  1. Hi Daniela,

    As a local, I don’t completely agree with you stating that Bali has just been flooded with tourists in recent days. I would probably say that before you come to Bali, you should’ve researched the area that suits you best. Say, if you like serene places, you might wanna go to Ubud rather than Kuta because as we all know – Kuta and Seminyak are always crowded. That way, you won’t get disappointed with the island. But maybe, you wanted to reveal the overtourism in Bali. However, I as a local would appreciate it more if you also wrote about the beauty of the island instead of just depicting its negative course.

    • Hi Nina,
      Thank you for your comment! I understand that you think I am not paying justice to Bali and its beautiful places. However, the goal of this post is not to present Bali as a travel destination, but to raise awareness what overtourism does to a place. Especially overtourism that comes as a result of uncontrolled growth and poor management.

  2. I went to Bali this February, and it’s a wonderful place. The people there are very hospitable. I loved trying the coffee poop!

    • I completely agree that it’s a beautiful country and the people are hospitable, I only wasn’t carried away by the coffee. But that’s I guess a matter of taste.

  3. It is a shame really, for such a beautiful place to be overrun by tourists.
    I stayed in Canggu back in 2010 to work in a school. It was a lovely village and the area by the sea was quiet with only 2 or 3 places to eat and have a coffee. A friend of mine stayed in Canggu by the sea in summer 2018 and what she described was another Kuta and Seminyak.
    I couldn’t believe that the Kuta area just keeps growing and gobbling up more and more of the traditional villages and scenery…
    A real shame.

    • There was a a very good headline a while ago in the media: something about the places we love to death. It hurts to see how tourism instead of being an advocate for preserving natural, historical and cultural heritage, is an advocate of consuming it, eventually leading to its ruination.

  4. Great article, I enjoyed reading it. After our stay at Bali for two weeks we thought that some places are overrated. Luckily we went from airbnb to airbnb and never stayed more than 3 days at the same place. We made our greatest memories in the rainforest near mount Batakuru in a small rural village.

    We spent our last day at North Kuta, only because the last airbnb was close to the airport. 🙂 And it’s crazy how south and north Bali are different. North Kuta was a very western-touristy-place and we didn’t enjoy it that much. While north Bali was amazing.

    We also discovered that those “No Go-jek” Signs (mostly seen in Ubud) are, how to say, “fake”. We always ordered a go-jek to drive us around and our most expensive drive was around 200k IDR while a taxi driver wanted 500k to 600k. lol Imagine a Doctor in Bali has 7 Mio. a month why should a driver make 15 Mio. a month? The prices in Ubud are also very expensive and for the same item – very different. 🙂 Most shops are owned by foreigners.

    Overall: Bali was still nice and we had some great cultural exchanges which we’re happy about. Should we ever visit Bali again it will be definitely in the rainforest again, away from the touristic and party crowd. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Sabrina! I’m happy you loved the north part of the island!

      Unfortunately, if not managed in the right way tourism creates disproportionate pays and this is what is going on in Bali. Money from tourism should go for the development and the preservation of the island and should not be drained outside the country by foreign enterprises.

    • I have been travelling to Bali for over 15 years (my wife is Balinese).
      It hurts when I think back 10 or 15 years. Total destruction is what immediately comes to my mind. Shopping malls hotels, overrun beaches. In Ubud you could see ricefields near the town center. Now all that is left is concrete and bricks. Mass tourism at it’s worst. Traditional food being replaced by ‘ international’ fast food. Why, because most tourists ask for insane things.

      I have a small house with my inlaws. I had the place on offer for tourists. A lot really loved the place, but others complained they had no satellite TV, the screen should be at least 55 inches wide and they missed the pool and a decent jacuzzi! And I am mot exaggerating. And of course zero respect for my family. So I pulled it of the market. Soon after that Marriott build a 5 star hotel near by. Butt ugly and gone was the tranquility in the village where a foreign face was rare to see 15 years ago.

      Can Bali be saved? IMHO absolutely not..The Indonesian government is corrupt and stupid and stubborn beyond our imigination. Soon the North of Bali will have their own international airport, nature is being sacrificed for hotels and other things tourists apparently need. There is almost no waste management or recycling to speak off, do what do you think?

      Perhaps I got carried away a bit, but I don’t see things slowing down, on the contrary!

  5. I stayed in Kuta, Legian and Seminyak and yes it is overcrowded even on the beach. However, I found the best restaurants in South Kuta and I also enjoyed traveling to South and East Bali, where the Balinese culture is still alive and nature is almost untouched. I agree that a second airport in North Bali will be detrimental for the area. I am planning to visit Lovina by car next time.

  6. I have been travelling to Bali for over twenty years and feel incredibly sad that the powers that be have allowed this country to sell it’s soul for the tourist dollar. It didn’t used to be that way. You now have to drive further and further to find the Bali of old and I fear that without regulation these places too will end up like the Kutas, Legians and Seminyaks of the world. For example the Ubud monkey forest used to be a place of peace to visit quietly and observe these animals in their environment. It is now overrun with tourists who are more interested in Instagram glory rather than respectful observation. Unless Bali regulates the amount of visitors they allow they will eventually destroy the very industry they are now so reliant on. I was in Bali again this past week. It took me 45 minutes to go 3km in a car. The place is bursting at the seams and not in a good way. I left Bali this time with a pit in my stomach and the feeling that exploitation of the tourist dollar at all costs has a grip on Bali that will never be undone.

    • Hi Vicki,

      I couldn’t agree more with you. The responsible authorities in Indonesia/Bali need to do something to get a grip on the industry that brought a certain portion of welfare to the island but will eventually lead to the destruction of the same. I hope that all those voices will be heard and at one point the officials will see that they have to do something before reaching the point of no return. I can’t write another article about Bali showcasing the attractions of this island as it will mean I am bringing more tourists to the island, but I know some else will do this. I know I can’t change much things, but I can advocate on my blog and my social media for measures to save Bali. I hope other bloggers will do the same.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  7. Great topic, Bali can definitely be chaotic! There’s some gorgeous areas in the south like Bingin Beach that still retain that surf charm. Kuta is definitely the worst of it! I can imagine after a long flight it would’ve been a shock!

    • I am sure that there are also many nice places in the South, as well. Yep, Kuta is a total nightmare… The point is how to prevent that all nice places will become Kuta one day, as I am sure that Kuta was also a nice charming place not long ago.

  8. I I do agree with your article. Tourism can be a good thing, but it also can break the culture. As you say, on this moment the growing of tourism is to much, to quick. That is why I hope there will be no International airport in the North. ik can and will take down the culture, the nature and in time even part of their religion.
    I keep my fingers crossed for the future of Bali.

    • Thank you, Peter! The second airport will be the end of the North. I really hope that they will focus on improvements rather than on increasing the tourist flow.

  9. I made the same mistake with staying in Kuta my first few nights in Bali. But, like you say, once I headed north, it was a different story. Kuta is vile, but even just heading up to Canggu can be a different story, And Ubud is touristy, but in a much less aggressive way. I think the general rule is – if there’s a lot of hype around a place, then it’s not going to be a secluded paradise by the time you arrive. You’re better off planning a flexible trip, arriving, and asking locals for their favourite islands/places. But then you have the downside of fewer facilities and accessibility there. Some great points though. It will be interesting to see how Bali develops.

  10. We visited Canggu, Ubud and Jimbaran…. and i hated bali for all the reasons listed above. Over hyped and too touristy. I don’t think I’d ever go back! This article was really good though and I’m glad someone else feels the same way we did…. disappointed

  11. Hi Daniela!! I am so glad to read your blog post aand realise that I am not the only one.. I’ve been in Bali this September and I loved the North of Bali and the islands (more of my scuba diving experience, to be honest!)
    I felt exactly as you did.. The places are overcrowded and over explored in a way that makes all the money possible from tourists! In the end we know that it is one of the ways that they have to get money and grow the country. However, I am afraid it is losing the essence.. 😔

  12. I enjoy your honesty here. I too had mixed feelings about Bali. I think there are many other more beautiful places to visit in Indonesia and it’s a shame that most tourists don’t make it past the beaches of Kuta and Seminyak.

  13. Every week I see 10 to 15 posts related to Bali while participating in different blog related threads. Because of that, I have asked myself what is going on down there and how the place is sustaining so many visitors. Mass tourism is a phenomenon that is affecting so many places. Lately, I have been traveling to places that I know do not attract that many people because I do not want to deal with the multitudes. I think a lot of people are visiting Bali and staying at a particular resort without going out (pretty much like in the Caribbean). Perhaps they cannot see the reality of the island because of this. I have no desire of staying in the popular beach areas. I would like to stay in a quieter place and get to know the people. Glad you invested your time pointing out this issue.

  14. Great, honest article. Bali has long been a favourite destination for us Australians as it’s quite close to us. But despite this I have actually never visited. Your article confirms they reasons why I haven’t, in a nutshell. I know there are stunning beaches etc but it’s also important for people to see the REAL side of a destination and know how overtourism is affecting locals.

  15. This is such an interesting read! I recently visited Bali myself and thought the exact same thing. Starting off in the south I was overwhelmed by the business, the rubbish and the lack of anything I thought I’d experience in ‘paradise’ Thankfully the north and regions like Ubud still hold their authenticity but something really needs to be done in the south!!

    • I really hope that those that can make a change will take the responsibility to do so, so that that madness could stop and tourism can take a normal course of action.


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