food / travel

How Mass Tourism Is Destroying Bali And Its Culture

Once an island paradise, Bali is turning into a concrete jungle, threatening its environment, culture, religion, and even language. Can Bali survive tourism, ask the island's worried inhabitants?

Stormy weather over Ulun Danu Temple in Bali... (Jo@net)
Stormy weather over Ulun Danu Temple in Bali... (Jo@net)
Bruno Philip

BALI – The "island of gods." This paradise wasn't spared its deodorant-commercial-style cliché. 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 tormented 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.

So is Bali over? "Yes, if you compare it to what it used to be," is -- at the very least -- what many residents agree on. Indeed, paradises have no future: they are just fragile perfections in an imperfect world. And if you define them as the receptacles of a frozen past, they can only be victims of modernization. Bali, among other "paradises," seems ill-equipped to resist the 21st century's mutations.

The terrible toll of mass tourism

"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, 700 hectares 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.

"The environmental protection law was passed, but the bupati, who have financial interests and are in collusion with the real estate developers, did everything to keep the law from being applied. Their obsession is making money to pay off their electoral campaigns," says Ketut Adyana, a member of the provincial legislative assembly.

This affable and unassertive representative in his thirties is one of the only people in Parliament to truly act to try and save Bali. "It is good that Bali attracts tourists, but Bali shouldn't be devoted solely to tourism," he says. "Local authorities have no long term vision, they want a quick return on invested capital. And tourism enables that. The irony in all this is that one day, tourists won't find what they were expecting in Bali anymore…"

In January 2011, reacting to the current deterioration, Governor Made Mangku Pastika decreed a moratorium on new constructions in heavily urbanized areas. He warned: "Bali risks becoming a sterile land bristling with concrete constructions!" Needless to say that the moratorium isn't very popular with investors -- this could turn out to be yet another failed attempt to stem the damage.

"Tourism is a reality that is linked to the attractiveness of our culture: if mass tourism evolves in a way that threatens this culture, our specificity will disappear," says Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, president of the Bali tourist information office. He himself is the owner of a prestigious hotel in Sanur, one of the island's flagship destinations. "Nothing is lost yet," he says, even though he acknowledges that "Our big problems are the lack of roads, access to water, insufficient infrastructures, electrical potential and waste disposal."

"We used culture like merchandise," says Ketut Yuliarsa, a poet and stage director from Ubud. The mischievous fifty-year-old, who writes poems about "exploring the road that leads beyond the world, perhaps to the soul…" 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!"

Changing tourism – and mentalities

The difficulty in curbing these excesses is all the more difficult since tourism does have positive aspects. "People have gotten richer, standards of living have increased. Many Balinese aren't aware of the current changes: most of them say they are satisfied with the evolution of things," says Ketut Yuliarsa.

A part of the youth is distancing itself from cultural constraints, often perceived as overbearing. The status of the farmer is starting to lose value in the face of the positively perceived "globalized urban" figure.

Audrey Lamou, former director of the French cultural center, Alliance Française, in Denpasar (Bali's administrative center) has been observing this phenomenon for several years. "Eighty percent of the Balinese society is still bound hand and foot to daily rites," says the young woman. "But some young people, who have to pay a sort of mandatory monetary compensation to the village when they can't attend these rites, are railing at these restrictive rules."

Audrey Lamou has also lived in Jakarta, and she says Indonesia's current democratization since the end of President Suharto's dictatorship -- when he was forced to step down in 1998 -- has brought many positive aspects that Bali is taking advantage of.

"People can express themselves much more freely than ten years ago, and more and more journalists and organizations are denouncing the corruption and amateurism of certain politicians," she says. However, "Balinese people are increasingly obsessed with easy money. Institutions like the gamelans -- traditional orchestras -- are disappearing and the Balinese language is slowly yielding to Indonesian. With this spectacular evolution, one wonders if the Balinese are culturally driving straight into the wall," she says.

These trends are naturally worrying those who transmit religious and cultural knowledge. "How can religion survive capitalism?" asks Ida Pandita Acharya, the Brahman of a small village temple near Ubud. Here is how he describes the current process: "Traditionally, people lived in fear of the gods. Because the Balinese were aware of nature's forces, rites enabled them to maintain the balance between man and divinity. Now, even though the rites are still respected, an increasing number of people are focused on material possessions. The authorities' policies are causing a loss of collective wisdom, a blurring of reference points and cultural uprooting."

Of course, Bali is still a magical place when compared to other "dream" destinations in Asia, like Thailand, where tourism has disfigured a large part of the coast. But if nothing is done to stop the excesses, the island of gods won't escape the cruel rule that no paradise has a future.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Jo@net

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Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.


Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."

*Pseudonym


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