How mass tourism is destroying Bali and its culture


BALI – The “island of the gods”. This paradise has not spared its cliché that looks like a commercial deodorant. For ages, this pearl of the Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesian archipelago, has embodied the archetype of the land of plenty: the natural splendor of its tropical landscapes, its white dream beaches, the tormented beauty of its Hindu temples, the friendly and tolerant reputation of its inhabitants. All the necessary ingredients for the Garden of Eden together.

But this idyllic description may soon be a thing of the past. Bali is threatened to such an extent that it could soon become unrecognizable: the cumulative effects of mass tourism, unbridled consumption and an ecological disaster are forcing the most lucid 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 only 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 changes of the century.

The terrible toll of mass tourism

“Bali really became a tourist destination in the 1970s,” explains Wayan Suardana, head of the NGO Walhi, which fights for the preservation of the environment. “But initially, it was mostly cultural tourism. Today, we are witnessing mass tourism. And that is the problem !

The indicators are not 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 drinking water crisis”, estimates Wayan Suardana. Over one million tourists visited Bali in 2001, up from around 2.5 million last year. All 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 wealthy foreigners or roads to improve the communication network of this island of 3.5 million inhabitants. Every day, 13,000 cubic meters of waste is thrown into public landfills, only half of which is recycled. The colossal traffic jams created by the uncontrolled growth of cars clutter many arteries: there are 13% more cars each year, for only 2.28% increase in usable roads.

In an attempt to control the impact of mass tourism on local Hindu culture – an exception in predominantly Muslim Indonesia – authorities have devised a “grand plan” to pass an environmental protection law: a Mandatory minimum spacing of 150 meters between resorts and the beach, no hotel within three miles of Hindu temples – or puras as they are called – and their intricate architecture.

This beautiful idea has remained a dead letter: decentralization has been carried out to such an extent in Indonesia – an archipelago of 17,000 islands with 240 million inhabitants – that a disproportionate power has been invested. bupati, the locally elected prefects. They take a dim view of the legislation.

“The law on environmental protection has been passed, but the bupati, who have financial interests and collude with real estate developers, has done everything to prevent law enforcement. Their obsession is to earn money to pay for their electoral campaigns, ”explains Ketut Adyana, member of the provincial legislature.

This affable and little assertive thirty-something is one of the only parliamentarians to have really acted to try to save Bali. “It’s good that Bali attracts tourists, but Bali shouldn’t be all about tourism,” he says. “Local authorities don’t have a long-term vision, they want a quick return on the invested capital. And tourism allows it. The irony in all of this is that one day, tourists will no longer find what they expected in Bali… ”

In January 2011, reacting to the current deterioration, Governor Made Mangku Pastika declared a moratorium on new construction in heavily urbanized areas. He warned: “Bali risks becoming a barren land bristling with concrete constructions! Needless to say, the moratorium is not very popular with investors – it could turn out to be yet another failed attempt to stem the damage.

“Tourism is a reality linked to the attractiveness of our culture: if mass tourism evolves in a way that threatens this culture, our specificity will disappear”, estimates Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, president of the Bali tourism office. . He himself owns a prestigious hotel in Sanur, one of the island’s top destinations. “Nothing is lost yet,” he says, even though he acknowledges that “our big problems are the lack of roads, access to water, insufficient infrastructure, electrical potential and disposal. garbage “.

“We used culture as a commodity,” explains Ketut Yuliarsa, poet and director from Ubud. The mischievous fifty-something, who writes poems on “exploring the path that leads beyond the world, perhaps to the soul …” is dismayed by the evolution of his island. “The Balinese are people who are still deeply attached to their religion and their culture, they spend a lot of time in the temples, they respect the rites. But mass tourism disrupts their practices: the diversity of local cultures and the specificity of rituals become unified, homogenized. We offer a standardized “package” to foreigners. An example: tourist guides use Polynesian practices, such as distributing garlands of flowers to newcomers, as if it were a Balinese custom!

Changing tourism – and mindsets

The difficulty of curbing these abuses is all the more difficult as tourism has positive aspects. “People have become richer, the standard of living has increased. Many Balinese are not aware of the changes underway: most of them say they are satisfied with the evolution of things ”, explains Ketut Yuliarsa.

A part of the youth distances themselves from cultural constraints, often perceived as authoritarian. The status of the farmer begins 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 (administrative center of Bali) has observed this phenomenon for several years. “Eighty percent of Balinese society is still hand in hand with daily rites,” explains the young woman. “But some young people, who have to pay some sort of compulsory monetary compensation to the village when they cannot attend these rites, are protesting against these restrictive rules.”

Audrey Lamou has also lived in Jakarta, and she says that Indonesia’s current democratization since the end of President Suharto’s dictatorship – when he was forced to resign in 1998 – has brought many positive aspects that Bali enjoys.

“People can express themselves much more freely than ten years ago, and more and more journalists and organizations denounce the corruption and the amateurism of certain politicians,” she said. However, “the Balinese are increasingly obsessed with easy money. Institutions like the gamelans – traditional orchestras – disappear and the Balinese language slowly gives way to Indonesian. With this spectacular development, one wonders if the Balinese are culturally rushing straight into the wall, “she said.

These trends naturally worry those who pass on religious and cultural knowledge. “How can religion survive capitalism? asks Ida Pandita Acharya, the Brahmin from a small temple in the village near Ubud. Here is how he describes the ongoing process: “Traditionally, people have lived in awe of the gods. Because the Balinese knew the forces of nature, the rites allowed them to maintain the balance between man and divinity. Now, even if the rites are still respected. , more and more people are focusing on material possessions. The policies of the authorities cause a loss of collective wisdom, a blurring of points of reference and a cultural uprooting.

Of course, Bali remains a magical place compared to other “dream” destinations in Asia, such as Thailand, where tourism has disfigured much of the coast. But if nothing is done to stop the excesses, the Island of the Gods will not escape the cruel rule that no paradise has a future.

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Photo – Jo @ net


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