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How Mass Tourism Is Destroying Bali And Its Culture

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BALI, INDONESIA, August 4, 2012 (sbs.com): The “Island of Gods.” For ages, this pearl of the Lesser Sunda islands, an Indonesian archipelago, has embodied the archetypal land of plenty: the natural splendor of its tropical landscapes, its dreamy white beaches, the beauty of its Hindu temples, the friendly and tolerant reputation of its inhabitants. All of the necessary ingredients for the Garden of Eden brought together.

But this idyllic description may soon be a thing of the past. Bali is threatened to the point that it could soon be unrecognizable: the cumulated effects of mass tourism, frenzied consumption and an ecological disaster are forcing the most clear-sighted Balinese to sound the alarm.

“Bali really became a touristic destination in the 1970s,” says Wayan Suardana, a manager at the Walhi NGO, which fights to preserve the environment. “But in the beginning, it was mostly cultural tourism. Today, we are witnessing mass tourism. And that’s the very problem! Indicators aren’t very encouraging: hundreds of hotels absorb a large part of the fresh water reserves. Each room in a four star hotel consumes 300 liters per day. “In 2015, Bali could face a drinkable water crisis,” says Wayan Suardana. Over a million tourists visited Bali in 2001, compared to approximately 2.5 million last year. All of this despite the 2002 terrorist attack by a small Islamist group that killed 202 people, including many Australians.

Each year, 2.7 sq. miles of land are converted into hotels, luxury residences for rich foreigners, or roads to improve the communication network of this 3.5 million inhabitants island. Each day, 13,000 cubic meters of trash are thrown into the public dumps, only half of which is recycled. Colossal traffic jams created by unchecked car growth congests many arteries: there are 13% more cars every year, for a mere 2.28% increase of roads suitable for motor vehicles.

To try and control the impact of mass tourism on the local Hindu culture — an exception in the mainly Muslim Indonesia — authorities came up with a “Great Plan” aimed at passing an environmental protection law: a 150 meter mandatory minimal spacing between touristic resorts and the beach, no hotel less than five kilometers away from Hindu temples — or puras as they are known — and their intricate architecture. This nice idea went unheeded: decentralization was conducted to such an extent in Indonesia — an archipelago of 17,000 islands populated by 240 million people — that a disproportionate amount of power was vested in the bupati, the locally elected prefects. They take a dim view of the legislation.

“We used culture like a merchandise,” says Ketut Yuliarsa, a poet and stage director from Ubud. The fifty-year-old is appalled by the evolution of his island. “The Balinese are people who are still deeply attached to their religion and culture, they spend a lot of time in temples, they respect the rites. But mass tourism is disrupting their practices: the diversity of local cultures and the specificity of rituals is being unified, homogenized. We offer a standardized ‘package’ to foreigners.” One example: tourist guides use Polynesian practices, like giving out garland of flowers to new arrivals — as though it was a Balinese custom!”

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