Over the last years, Indonesia’s government has made several announcements of its intention to create many more Balis. Made urgent by the pandemic and its ensuing impact on tourism, the statement was made again, a couple of months ago.
This statement comes across as problematic. While the current situation is desperate for all tourism-dependent economies, this is precisely the time to focus on #destinationdevelopment that takes into account long term needs of the local community; respects the intelligence of current and future generations of travelers; considers the ecological, cultural and social flipsides of over-tourism; includes rigorous impact assessment in all decision-making; and last but not least, respects a destination, its inherent characteristics and allows for inclusive and organic development of is as a destination.
Compared to the first visit (2010), my last visit to Bali (2017) demanded sizable effort to craft an itinerary that avoided the typical tourist hordes of flowing dresses, dreamcatcher earrings and panama hats, often found in beelines for a quick shot at one of the 10 variants of the Bali Swing or bars in Canggu. I acutely missed Bali and its essence that I experienced 7 years prior. The island now undoubtedly leads the way for the generic beach or ‘hipster’ destinations that I have experienced elsewhere in the world in plenty, be it in Goa, Berlin or Guatemala.
Side note: Bali swings can now be found in Norway, San Francisco and Ecuador too. Such attractions and their visitors clog the narrow, serpentine roads that were never meant to endure the onslaught of this magnitude of traffic. Together with these crowds come pollution, water shortages, plastic and displacement of residents to make way for hotels and resorts.
Indonesia now wants to replicate it’s Bali model in 5 other locations- Borobodur, Mandalika, Labuan Bajo, Lake Toba and Likupang. But what does the government think is needed to make a handful new Balis? And can it really replicate Bali?
108 basic infrastructure projects related to roads, raw and clean water supply, waste management, sanitation, residential improvements and more, have been planned under the 5 new Balis program. The questions that arise are- do these infrastructure projects factor in the local ecology, are results of Environmental Impact Assessment exercise, and are co-created with residents to ensure sustainable employment, livelihoods and ideal living conditions for them?
On the same day that I watched the long queue at the Bali swing while my driver Putu and I slurped on bowls of Bakso Ayam at the nearby hole-in-the-wall cafe, I had the chance to chat with a Balinese woman and her family. We were at the Pura Bratan temple, I as a tourist, and my new friend performing the Atma Wedhana ceremony for her father who had passed away recently. After concluding the ceremony, she patiently explained the rituals to me, which sounded very similar to the Hindu practices in India. While talking, she also lamented the unforgiving traffic they encountered on the way to the temple, and the absence of peace and quiet to perform the sombre ceremony. The temple was overrun by tourists like me.
It is clear that Bali is unique, in its heritage, people and natural resources. The destination allows for rich encounters with a living culture, the prime appeal of the destination. Not all elements of Bali are replicable, especially Bali’s cultural and religious heritage (87% of Bali practices Hinduism, with adds up to only 2% of Indonesia), the foundation for Bali as a destination for spirituality and wellness.
Having said that, Indonesia certainly needs more destinations to take the pressure off Bali and mitigate the problems of over-tourism that the island had been suffering from pre-pandemic. One can hope that Indonesia’s new Balis learn from the problems of Bali before becoming one!
All pictures are mine, from the 2017 trip to Bali.