Bali needs little introduction. It is the most famous of the 17,508 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Since the opening of its international airport in the late 1960s, the island has been a sought-after tourist destination for backpackers, honeymooners and families alike. I was one of 6.3 million foreign tourists lucky enough to set foot on Bali’s shores in 2019, before Bali indefinitely closed its doors to foreigners in March 2020. With 80% of people in Bali directly or indirectly reliant on tourism, economic loss has hit this island hard. However, mass tourism has also bought ethical and environmental issues to Bali that have come to the forefront of international attention in recent years. These plague Bali’s pristine reputation, and may be even more detrimental to its tourism sector in the long-term.
Tourism is a part of the problem, but can it also be a part of the solution? Effective ways to support responsible tourism, when it is safe to travel to Bali again, will be discussed below.
Bali’s plastic problem has been widely criticized by international media. Poor waste management on the island results in most trash being dumped on land or in waterways that connect to the ocean. In fact, Indonesia is the second largest marine polluter in the world. However, a lack of recycling infrastructure is not the sole cause of plastic pollution – the heart of the issue lies in consumers’ insatiable appetite for plastic in the first place.
In an effort to curb plastic consumption, Bali’s Governor announced an island-wide ban on single-use plastic bags, polystyrene and straws that came into force in June 2019. However, the effectiveness of this ban is highly questionable. During my visit in late 2019, it appeared that restaurants outside of the main tourist hubs were unaware of (or chose to not comply with) the ban. Thus, bringing your own reusable bags, containers and straws to Bali (and declining their single-use equivalents) is still recommended.
Undrinkable water across Bali results in over 6 million plastic bottles being used and discarded across the island each month, according to RefillMyBottle. Thankfully, the RefillMyBottle mobile app provides a simple solution, whereby app users can scope out nearby businesses that allow them to refill their bottles with clean water for free or a minimal fee. This movement was originally just limited to Bali where it was founded, but now 2500 refill stations exist across Southeast Asia and beyond.
Animals are subject to various tourist traps in Bali. One of the most famous tourist experiences is sampling kopi luwak. Small mammals called Asian palm civets are forced to eat and excrete unnatural amounts of coffee berry beans used to make kopi luwak. A 2019 PETA Asia investigation found wild-caught civets on Indonesian farms suffering from zoochosis (mental illness in captive animals). The investigation also revealed that the industry unashamedly mislabels coffee produced by captive civets as “wild-sourced”. It is essentially impossible to find ethical kopi luwak, so consuming this coffee should be avoided altogether.
Other problematic animal attractions include Bali’s wildlife parks and zoos. The World Animal Protection’s 2018 Wildlife ‘abusement’ parks report highlights the extent of animal suffering in Bali. Astonishingly, investigators deduced that 100% of the venues visited with captive elephants, tigers, dolphins or civet cats failed to meet these animals’ basic needs. The report found that elephant-riding is offered at all elephant venues in Bali. This requires forcing elephants into submission using tortorious phajaan (elephant crushing) processes, including tying up elephants in confined spaces to “break” them”. Evidently, genuine elephant rescue and rehabilitation sanctuaries will never offer elephant rides.
If you want an ethical wildlife experience in Bali, I can confidently recommend volunteering at the Bali Wildlife Rescue Centre in Tabanan. This centre is run by Friends of the National Parks Foundation, an Indonesian non-profit organization committed to protecting wildlife, restoring habitats and advancing local communities. Most of the centre’s animals have been rescued from markets, residences or businesses keeping them as pets or for entertainment. I contacted them through Airbnb Experiences and worked there for half a day, but longer volunteering opportunities are also possible.
The Balinese are some of the kindest and most hospitable people you’ll ever meet. The fact that 85% of Bali’s tourism sector lies in the hands of non-Balinese investors seems a grave injustice. Contrary to popular thought, booming tourism doesn’t necessarily improve locals’ livelihoods. Mass tourism has increased living costs in Bali, including land values and land taxes that many Balinese families can no longer afford to pay. Consequently, many families who owned fertile farmland in the south of Bali are being pushed out by tourism-related land grabbing. They then must settle for the less fertile and drier soil to the north and east, or are sucked into the tourism industry.
Mass tourism is a large and complex issue in Bali. One of the best things travelers can do is to avoid the chain hotels and resorts in the overdeveloped southern region of the island, and venture further afield. Homestays in Bali are a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the westernized areas, and truly experience the local way of life in remote villages. This may include learning how to make authentic Balinese food, crafts and canang sari (ceremonial offerings made by Balinese Hindus). Most importantly, you can rest-assured that your money directly supports your Balinese homestay family and the community at large.
Only time will tell whether Bali can still live up to its picture-perfect reputation in the post-COVID era, or whether over-tourism has irrevocably rendered Bali a paradise of the past. Political intervention is desperately needed to confront the magnitude of Bali’s perilous situation. Nevertheless, I hope this article demonstrates that our individual efforts can help pave the way for more sustainable, ethical and culturally authentic tourism.
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Photo: Radoslav Bali via Unsplash; Marc Schorr via Unsplash