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)
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

Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte


PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.


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