BALI UPDATE: EN-MASS TOURISM & OTHER ONGOING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ON THE ‘ISLAND OF PARADISE’
Now this is NOT the story that you will hear from your local travel agent, it’s not hidden in their tourist brochures, and you certainly won’t get it from the Indonesian Government. Why? That’s because it’s all about greed, politics and excrement - literally! It's not pretty.
En-mass tourism advocates argue the point. It’s simple really, money talks. Tourism is worth BIG bucks to the struggling Balinese economy! Now, isn't it interesting how this all sounds like the same mantra that the Balinese Government is also pushing too! And yet, as development fever takes over, Bali’s paradise island is in danger of sinking under the weight of overpopulation, resorts, garbage, human waste and golf balls.
For nearly 50 years, it has been the most favoured cheap overseas holiday destinations for many Australians. For many of us, our annual Bali holiday remains our most direct experience with Indonesia, an exotic destination to soothe any modern day stressors – besides, it’s only a three-hour flight from Perth.
Let it be said, you can still have an incredibly relaxing holiday in this place, it’s only when you get out of your deckchair for long enough, to poke around on the spongy edges that you discover the “dark side of paradise” – Bali is still sinking into its own mire. Then you will see the sewage oozing out of the soil on the banks of the Sayan terraces just outside Ubud, where the multi-million-dollar Four Seasons Hotel was built at breakneck speed. If you are privileged enough to see it during the wet season, with the excrement spilling over from the septic tanks.
As we both experienced in 2017 and again in 2018 during the wet season, excrement is oozing from the septic tanks and between the buildings from those numerous cheap two and three-star hotels into the streets of Kuta and Legion and then it trickles down little culverts and the gutters that line all the streets, often mixing with petrol or diesel or ‘anything else’ that is spilt into these slow-flowing cesspools of which then makes its way down into the ocean. We avoided swimming in the Legion Beach, given that we observed this phenomena the day prior.
In the same streets of Kuta, Legion or even Ubud, there are people walking everywhere on the tiny dangerous uneven sidewalks, sharing it with the vendors squatting in front of their establishments and the masseuses yelling out to attract potential ‘Balinese Massage’ tourists. Then we have to run-the gauntlet of the line of relentless locals asking each and every tourist that walks past, whether you want to rent their taxi, purchase their crappy cheap tourist t-shirts, wooden penises, Bintang beer, hash or even Viagra. We couldn’t take it anymore. We just wanted to escape from this relentless heat and the madness of the crowds, back up into the mountains at our resort in Puhu, at the recently built Padma Resort Ubud.
Although, we did notice that compared to back in 2003, that since then in 2017 and again in 2018 the town of Ubud has obviously had a huge clean-up. Previous years we had observed that in several of the streets of Ubud were littered with dead dogs, rats or some other type of rodents, and even a dead monkey of two, could all lay there rotting for days, until ‘someone’ disposes of the putrefying carcases. You will see it in the rubbish dumps – legal and illegal – which sit like smouldering ruins alongside the motorways close to hotels and restaurants. You will also see it in the reports that the Indonesian Government has chosen NOT to publish, the state of Bali’s beaches – bacteria levels so far above the World Health Organisations’ recommended standards that you’d have to be crazy, or just plain ignorant, to take the plunge.
Now we see ‘why’ we chose not to take the risk whilst staying in Legion! We noticed the rafting trip we did on the Ayung River, had a section where your group is directed under a flowing waterfall on the riverside steep embankment, splashing down into the Ayung. Many of the ‘other’ punters in our group of over-enthusiastic rafters, were keen to get wet under this creek’s cold water. However, we were not! We were fully aware of what flows down into this side creek from the surrounding areas, small villages, and the little “warungs” along this river’s edge. Along these smaller creeks and rivers, just about everything gets washed in it, and then thrown back into the water flow, and we mean ‘everything’ – literally! So there was no way we were sticking our heads under that fast flowing high-side waterfall.
YES – OBVIOUSLY HYGIENE IS INDEED AN ISSUE IN BALI
In these smaller cheap restaurants and hotels fresh clean water is NOT always used in the old plastic buckets where the dirty plates are cleaned. In these warungs on the sides of the road, there might be no fridge to store meat. If you are new to ‘Street Food’ in Bali, it is highly recommended that you take a closer look at the place you choose, before you venture into the delicious delights of street food on the island of Bali. If you are blessed with a strong stomach then be adventurous, try something new and spicy. If not, take it easy and slow.
You might want to go to a busy place with a high turnover and start with a vegetarian dish. Some warung owners have expanded and opened more comfortable venues, where seating is plentiful, kitchens are clean, and food is always available. WARNING: Always order bottled drinking water (or their Bintang beer) and check to see that the bottle has not been opened before, as you may simply be paying for a second-hand bottle that has been refilled from their kitchen tap.
In 2017 the Balinese Government, for the first time in many decades went public, with the problem of the south western beaches of Bali and the massive clean-up campaign was publicised world-wide. Sadly, the problem remains today with the floating rafts of rotting masses of plastics, human waste, rotting carcasses and human garbage, that continues to ‘blow-in’ on the Westerlies from the other surrounding Indonesian islands. This floating filth comes mainly from the rotting waste that is flushed down many of the south flowing rivers of the populations along the south coast of West, Central and East Java. These massive floating rafts of rotting waste continue to arrive on a weekly basis onto the Southwest beaches of the entire island of Bali. To any observant and informed onlooker, it almost looks like a losing battle.
The fact remains, the island of Bali is being dangerously overdeveloped, and with it, its environment and culture ransacked. Such is the unscrupulous greed for the quick rupiah, is the staggering lack of planning and basic infrastructure, and the level of cronyism and corruption within Indonesia, that the forces lined up against Bali almost look insurmountable.
A few years back, according to Dr Carol Warren from the Asian Studies Program at Western Australia’s Murdoch University, investment in major tourism projects on Bali soared worth multi-billions of dollars due to cheap bank loans from both local and International banks. Whilst initially, this obviously had some positive benefits for many Balinese, given that only just 50 odd years ago, Balinese children were dying from malnutrition. Since then, now families could afford to build new homes, buy motorcycles, and even send their children to schools. The tourist industry spawned thousands of new businesses – handicrafts, fashion, furniture, art, cuisine and of course – build many, many more resorts, hotels, and family run niche-market businesses, or those numerous smaller eco-tourism or boutique resorts or lodgings.
However, according to Carol Warren, back then she studied this impact of these enmass increases in tourism on Bali’s environment and culture, that were subject to this huge injection of International and Indonesian money (all on loan), was also having a harmful effect on the Balinese way of life. Despite a continuous flow of the rhetoric espousing earlier commitments to ‘cultural tourism’, Warren went on record stating that, “Bali’s development policy had become almost entirely geared, if not driven, toward the gross maximisation of tourist numbers, and the income that tourism might generate. This in turn has created acute environmental and social problems for the small island of Bali!”
Back then, only two decades ago, Bali’s development fever was staggering. Just about each and every day saw the foundations poured and the outer shell erected of yet another hotel or condominium take form, thus eliminating another vestige of traditional Bali. In many ways it is a microcosm of the struggle being waged across Indonesia; how to satisfy the interests of economic growth and still preserve the stability and the unity of an incredibly diverse people, many of whom are born into a very time-honoured ways of life. “If there is no tourism, we can’t develop in Bali.”
Structural and worker safety is only one of the many hidden costs of rampant growth Indonesian-style. The disposal of waste is another. Bali has no integrated system for dealing with garbage or human waste. Some of the more luxurious hotels are now treating their own sewage but the majority of hotels and “losmens” (affordable overnight lodging place, like a hostel) still rely on septic tanks. “I can show you hotels in Kuta and Legian where the septic tanks have overloaded and they’ve had to close the foot-paths to the beach because of the excrement,” said one Indonesian-based Australian engineer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The control of human, plastic and solid waste is the big issue on Bali and nobody is listening,” says Sean Foley, an Australian living in Bali and working as an environmental consultant to a number of United Nations projects. “This island will eventually disappear under a sea of crap if nothing is done soon.” Documents from Udayana University in Bali’s capital Denpasar reveal levels of faecal coliforms in the waters around Bali way above World Health Organisation recommended standards of zero. So polluted are the waters that environmental experts don’t discount the possibility of future large-scale cholera outbreaks.
"Bali is in the midst of an ecological crisis. Almost half of the island of Bali’s rivers have dried up, whilst the rubbish just keeps piling up"
Commonly labelled by tourists as “Paradise on Earth”, the Indonesian holiday island of Bali has become an embarrassing poster child for the country's trash problem. The archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is the world's second biggest contributor to marine debris after China, and a colossal 1.29 million metric tons is estimated to be produced annually by Indonesia. The waves of plastic flooding into rivers and oceans have been causing problems for years -- clogging waterways in cities, increasing the risk of floods, and injuring or killing marine animals who ingest or become trapped by plastic packaging.
Only just recently, officials declared a “garbage emergency” across a six-kilometre stretch of Bali’s coastline. At the peak of the clean-up, hundreds of cleaners removed 100 tons of debris from the beaches each day. The cause? Too many tourists — who just keep coming.
Indeed, Bali is the hottest ticket in Indonesia for property development with tourism growing steadily at an average of 10 per cent annually in the last ten years. In the next financial year, the Indonesian tourism ministry is optimistically predicting that the holiday destination of Bali will hopefully attract between 6 – 7 million foreign tourists, to an island of only 4 million residents.
Just about everything in Bali revolves around tourism. It is in a constantly flux between too many tourists and not enough. Only just last year, yet again we have seen Mount Agung erupting, once again sending the tourism industry‘gasping for air.’ Yet it’s that same tourism industry that makes Bali’s natural environment ‘out of balance.’
Bali is also in the midst of a water crisis, for which tourism is no balm. Saras Dewi, an Indonesian academic and activist, called out Bali’s “unsustainable tourism levels”. But the latest wave of mass tourism has had undesirable side effects. Massive traffic jams plague the island’s mostly narrow roads and rubbish from increased commercial activities has piled up along the beaches.
Overdevelopment will not only erode Bali’s environment, but its tourism market as well. All of the island’s economic opportunities will have dried up when visitors find high-rise hotels instead of the tranquillity they travelled for. Lax enforcement has also seen land conversions go unchecked, especially ‘under-the-table’ deals between locals eager to cash in on their land with investors who are willing to pay.
The shrinking amount of land available has threatened Bali’s self-sufficiency in rice.
“I call this overdevelopment,” says Prof Widya, who also chairs a committee on preserving subak, the unique irrigation system seen in Bali’s famed tiered rice fields. The fields are listed by Unesco as a piece of world heritage.
In Bali’s southern coast, Kuta is known for bars selling cheap beer, playing throbbing music and filled with raucous crowds. It is also famous for its packed beaches crawling with touts, prostitutes and the infamous “Kuta cowboys” or male gigolos.
The adjoining Seminyak and Legian areas pitch themselves as more sophisticated, with their boutiques, chic restaurants and bars, although many fear it could gradually go the way of Kuta, which has become so trashy it has turned off many international visitors.
The mushrooming developments have clogged irrigation channels to rice fields inland, often drying them up and driving up the cost of tending the land. Marde Suarnatha, from environmental non-government organisation Wisnu Foundation, said: “These are tough times for farmers to make a decent living so they are tempted to let go of their land for fast but huge money.” The Indonesia Employers Association in Bali has urged the government to take tough action and impose sanctions on what it calls rogue investors who manipulate the system to buy land illegally.
And even those with ‘approved’ development plans do not always follow them. Often times it is the case where locals allege that the government has not enforced the rules laid out in its conservation management plan. Illegal development and illegal modifications, or ‘renovations’ as developers call it, have become common, driven in part by tourist demand for upscale cafes and hotels. And Bali’s hard-to-get hold of tourism management plan is deliberately exclusionary to people who cannot afford to pay the government-mandated rates.
“Do we want more tourists? Maybe no,” said Balinese community activist Viebeke Lengkong who stated recently, “it is a question of what kind of services we can actually provide for millions of tourists. Bali is in the middle of a water crisis.” Bali does not have enough of its own clean, risk-free & disease-free drinking water.
When tourism dominates an economy, some governments prioritize tourists over their own citizens. Around the world, people are evicted from their homes to make way for tourism developments. As in Bali’s case, tourism has definitely had a devastating impact on local climates and ecosystems, particularly in places that are already vulnerable to climate change. In coast-line areas, coastal development — largely driven by tourism — has destroyed half of Bali’s rainforest and damaged its mangroves, which not only store more carbon than most tropical forests, but also provide a first line of defence against tsunamis.
Only just recently, the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) went further and demanded a moratorium on construction of tourism facilities. Earlier this year, a Walhi-led coalition of NGOs sued the Bali governor for approving land conversions in a mangrove area, of which appears “to be a clear breach of environmental laws”.
“We are grateful that Bali has been prosperous because of tourism. But let’s pause for a while and take stock of the environmental destruction,” said Walhi’s Bali chapter chairman Wayan Gendo Suardana. For others, holding on to their land also means holding on to Bali’s charm.
“If we allow more padi fields to be converted, someday these views will become scarce, an irony since the main draw for most tourists here is to seek tranquillity by being amid padi fields,” he added. “We wish to pursuit the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth we need both imagination and scepticism. Sadly, in Bali’s case, we are sleep walking into ecological disaster.”
ALTERNATIVELY, WHERE COULD TOURISTS GO ON THE ISLAND OF BALI?
Ruling out such places and types of travel isn’t as limiting as it seems. It means seeking opportunities for more meaningful tourism that does not destroy a place’s environment or lead to harm for its residents. Why not visit places apart from the usual holiday destinations, for example avoid the coastal towns and districts like Kuta, Legion, Seminyak and Nusa Dua, by spending your holiday in the more remote locations in the middle of the island. For example, the recently built exquisite 5-star accommodation at the ‘Padma Resort Ubud’ in Puhu (www.padmaresortubud.com) or even visit the little known north-west coastal towns and numerous 3, 4 and 5-star resorts.
Travel to those places less-visited, where it’s easier to develop relationships beyond the usual touristy “bubble” and the hustle and bustle of the hectic streets. Get off the beaten track and consider your next holiday at any of the incredibly friendly eco-tourism resorts and village accommodation at numerous locations all over the island, particularly in the northwest or the middle of the island. Sure, it takes a little longer to get there, but it sure is worth it. Just one example is the delightful ‘Bali Eco Stay’ a beautiful 2-star rustic accommodation surrounded by jungle and rice fields (www.baliecostay.com). This remote, serene eco-lodge is 32 km from Pura Luhur Batukaru temple, close to the ‘Bali Butterfly Park’ and yet only 52 km from Ngurah Rai International Airport. Their 1 and 2-bedroom open-air bungalows are built of wood and bamboo, and feature vaulted ceilings, carved wood furniture, and daybeds. Some offer kitchenettes and/or gardens. All bungalows have safes, tea and coffeemakers, and mosquito nets, plus Wi-Fi access. Amenities include a restaurant serving organic food, picnics by a waterfall, and an open-air yoga studio. Massages are available. Hydroelectricity is powered by the local river; there's also a back-up generator. Other services include a daily laundry, child friendly restaurant and a bar. Massages are also available, so go ahead – indulge yourself, maybe book one every second day!
AS TOURISTS, WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO?
As tourists, we also have a responsibility towards the natural environment and the indigenous 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, and this also includes the wild monkeys in the Monkey Forest Park. These are still wild animals that are quite able to inflict a bite or even a nasty scratch, should the monkey not get its own way, whether that be stealing any food that you may have with you, your bag, camera, sunglasses, and especially your wallet. It is our personal belief that these monkeys are ‘trained’ to steal things off the tourists, then bring their stolen ‘bootie’ back to their trainer for their favourite food.
We certainly DO NOT recommend those elephant parks – personally, we believe they are cruel and they still continue to beat these elephants with a nail-in-a-stick to get them to perform tricks and take further paying customers for a short ride. Hands-on experiences with exotic animals are thriving, boosted by social media. Behind the scenes, animals involved in tourism often lead miserable lives. In this short documentary link, National Geographic writer Natasha Daly investigates wildlife tourism, where visitors seek interactions with elephants held in captivity.
Try to buy or use local products, where you can be sure that the profit goes back into the local community. There are so many other ways we can be responsible tourists – this also includes stop getting your towels washed every day, instead – only when they need it. This will save millions of litres of water every day!
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.”
Starting in 2020, Australians taking a holiday in Bali are facing a new $14-per-person tax when they arrive on the holiday island from next year. But before you grumble about having to pay more to take a holiday, it's a tariff with a purpose: a green tax, which Bali Governor Wayan Koster has been working on for months, and which is designed to help clean up the island's natural environment. Why not consider a holiday to the ‘other’ island – Lombok? The island of Lombok is like what Bali use to be 40 years ago. Beautiful and peaceful!
“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 to manage it correctly.”
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