The tourism in Bali is doing more harm than good

If I had to rank the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, the sun setting over the Bali coastline is high on the list. 

As I watched from the top of a cliff, the once-blue sky turned to a gorgeous shade of orange, red and purple as the waves crashed into the bay and surrounding black rocks. The outcrops overlooking the water seemed to be in danger of collapsing, with each wave taking away a tiny chunk of rock. The birds turned into dark shapes on the horizon as a gentle breeze floated through the still-balmy air, and as the light faded, the flames from torches higher up on the cliffside provided pockets of light in a patchwork spanning the cliffs.

It would have been even more breathtaking if I had not been watching while actively squished into the side of a railing as seemingly thousands of tourists waited in line to see a traditional Balinese rendition of the famous Hindu tale, the Ramayana. During the performance, the space in the outdoor amphitheater was so limited that tourists sat on the temple itself. 

In the Hindu tradition, that is extremely disrespectful. Yet, nobody took action.

I believe it is the perfect representation of Bali itself — a beautiful place with a rich cultural heritage in danger of losing itself due to overcrowding. The disrespectful tourists, environmental damage and economic dependency stemming from the current wave of tourism are consequences that will likely ruin the island paradise.

Full disclosure — I am writing from the perspective of a recent tourist to Bali. I visited Indonesia in order to see family and was lucky enough to spend two days in Bali. I left the island amazed; I saw a different side of my Hindu religion amidst the backdrop of some of the most stunning natural scenery I’ve ever witnessed.

Unfortunately, some tourists don’t respect the island. In 2023 alone, tourists walked naked into temples, posed nude on sacred banyan trees, argued with locals because a religious procession diverted traffic and broke visa guidelines. As of June, Bali deported 136 offenders for similar offenses. This is not a substantial percentage of the visiting population, but it is a number expected to increase with the rising influx of tourists unless the Balinese government is able to remedy the situation. Furthermore, the ideological damage is rather significant. 

These behaviors, even if it results in the offender’s deportation, impact the perception of tourists by the locals and create a view of Bali as an island of partying and pleasure.

That’s to say nothing of the financial cost inflicted upon the community. While these incidents could possibly result in the tourist losing their favorite vacation spot, the community needs to conduct expensive cleansing ceremonies that can reach prices of up to $1,000 or 15,325,000 Indonesian rupiah. Speaking as a Hindu, it is hurtful to see these cases exist — no tourist would ever think of being naked in a church or synagogue. 

Why is the same attitude not present for non-Western religious sites? The rise in tourism has also come at a steep environmental price for Bali. Luxury tourist accommodations utilize nearly 65% of the available water on the island rather than it being used for local farming. 

Indonesia ranks in the top-five in plastic generation, and Bali itself only has one waste management company on the island. In fact, the coast of Bali is a repository of plastic waste instead of a largely pristine habitat for ocean life. Much of this plastic waste comes from hotels and resorts using non-sustainable practices. 

The rise in tourism has also created a notable spike in noise and air pollution due to increased traffic on already-congested roads. Any efforts to halt the flow of tourism into Bali encounter significant opposition due to the enormous financial ramifications. 

Bali’s status as one of the premier tourist destinations came to a peak in 2019 when nearly 6.28 million people
visited the island. 

Like the rest of the world, COVID-19 changed all of that. When the pandemic shut down the tourist industry, the island experienced an economic contraction of 9.31%. 

Considering that the industry made up nearly 61% of Bali’s GDP, it’s not surprising that the economic consequences were so severe. For some perspective, tourism makes up a quarter of Hawaii’s GDP. Furthermore, the country of Indonesia has a vested economic interest in supporting the tourist industry. 

According to the Bali government, Bali alone accounts for 30-40% of Indonesia’s foreign reserves from tourism. Limiting the number of tourists could cause a substantial financial hit for Indonesia amidst massive change in the country as the capital is moving from Jakarta to Borneo.

Many would point to the effects of the pandemic as evidence that the Bali tourism industry should not be curtailed because of how dependent the island is on it. 

I would argue it is unhealthy for Bali to be so dependent on something that has caused damage to both its culture and environment. Opponents of tourism restrictions fail to recognize the progress made during the pandemic in diversifying Bali’s economy. Entrepreneurship and local telecommunication businesses in the space of digital competitiveness and technology adoption saw significant growth. 

While some of that must be attributed to the nature of the pandemic, a decrease in the number of tourists could see similar growth in the agribusiness and marine sectors. These are extremely important components of an island economy, but the island currently isn’t focused on growth in these areas because tourism is so
important to its economy. 

Measures like restricting mountain access and a small tourist tax are short-term fixes that don’t address the real issue — there is too much tourism in Bali. Reductions in the number of tourists permitted to arrive must be made so that Bali can protect its unique culture and beautiful environment.

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