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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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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