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.
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.
A shiny shopping mall in Kuta – built according Western standards. A piece of “paradise” in the jungle of scooters, taxis, vendors and stray dogs.
The results of uncontrolled growth of tourism – no development plan, absolute commercialism, air pollution, no safety norms.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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]
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?