Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bali: From Celebrated Island of the Gods to Deteriorating Tourist Shanty Town?

Since the fatal terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 and 2005, the province has fully rebounded, entrenching itself as one of Southeast Asia’s top tourism draws. Tourist numbers continue to break records and developers and investors are tripping over themselves to build hotels, villas, convention centers and tourism parks on the island.

Tourism experts say Julia Roberts’s Hollywood movie “Eat Pray Love” — filmed mostly in Bali and released earlier this month — could further raise Bali’s international profile and lure even more tourists to the island.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has jumped on the bandwagon, with Indonesian consulates around the world reportedly offering tour packages similar to that in the film.

But behind the facade of surf shops, nightclubs and artist communities, forces are at work that could see Bali’s impressive rise coming to a grinding halt.

Ironically, at the root of the problems, which include rampant development, dwindling natural resources, a diminishing unique culture and increased communal tensions, are the millions of tourists that flock annually to the island and make it one of the richest parts of Indonesia.

Rocketing numbers

According to the Central Statistics Agency, 1.17 million foreign tourists arrived in Bali in the first half of the year, a 9.52 percent increase from the 1.07 million in the same period last year.

Australian tourists, in particular, have doubled every two years since the start of 2006, only months after the last terrorist bombings on the island.

Last year, 446,570 Australian tourists visited Bali, up 42.6 percent from 2008.

More tourists from Japan and China are also flocking to the island due to its close proximity and reputation as a low-cost destination.

The increasing number of visitors to Bali and the industries catering to them continue to place undue pressure on the island’s natural resources and halcyon way of life.

There are concerns that the small island could turn into another Ibiza, Spain, which is known for both its crime wave and wild nightlife.

At the root of the trepidation are land development and natural resource use for hotels and other tourist sites.

Balinese Hindu culture — rooted in the powerful “banjar” village associations — depends on land ownership and rice cultivation traditions.

A Balinese home often accommodates up to five generations, and includes the family temple where the living worship ancestral spirits and complete the many rituals defining Balinese life.

In prime areas such as Seminyak, mostly foreign-backed villa developments have driven land prices as high as Rp 10 million per square meter.

Projects like these have caused Bali’s famed rice fields to vanish.

On the surface, this may appear a good thing, since the tourism sector accounts for around 30 percent of gross regional domestic product.

But community leaders fear that generations of Balinese — who make an average monthly income of $100 — are bought out of their own land and resources, which they mostly use for agriculture.

Limited powers

Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has acknowledged the issues confronting the island.

He said last year that only 140 rivers and waterways out of 400 in the province are functioning properly, mainly due to unchecked development and businesses pumping groundwater.

The fight for what little land is left for development has prompted the local legislature to pressure the provincial government to implement a moratorium on villa and hotel construction.

Pastika has admitted that his administration is finding it difficult to control the increase of villas and hotels in the province due to the regional autonomy law, which gives mayors and district heads the authority to directly issue construction and business permits.

The Tourism Board’s Wijaya echoed the governor’s sentiments. “Are we going to become another Ibiza? We don’t need millions of visitors or all these hotel rooms going up all the time,” he said.

“Mass tourism would kill Bali and its unique heritage. The central government has given local authorities too free a hand since decentralization in 2001.”

Crime boom

Based on the results of the national census in May, Bali’s population now stands at 3.89 million, up from 3.15 million recorded in the 2000 census.

The population and development boom has affected nearly every aspect of life in the island, not least of all crime.

Police last month reported the crime rate in Bali has shot up 14.8 percent in the first half of 2010 compared with the same period last year, with the tourism hubs of Denpasar and Badung regencies topping the list of crime-ridden areas.

The Bali Police have said that crimes targeting foreigners this year would more than double last year’s total, as incidences rose to 115 from January to June this year compared to only 107 for all of 2009.

The crimes in Bali over the past year have been driven by a number of factors, which include simple desperation and opportunity, the probable motives for incidents such as bag-snatching and ATM fraud.

Envy of the lifestyle of the expatriate community is another crime driver.

What to a foreigner may appear to be an “average” lifestyle is already considered highly privileged by Indonesians, inevitably provoking some to try to take advantage.

On one hand, while authorities have attempted to persuade foreigners to dress with relative modesty, many ignore the advice.

The rape and murder of a Japanese tourist and other foreign women are presumably the result of misperception among Indonesians over the signals sent by women in scant clothing.

Balinese locals may be accustomed to the liberal ways of the expatriate community, but immigrants from other islands can be confused and possibly react inappropriately.

Communal conflicts are also set to increase as the Balinese and business developers, many of whom are from outside the province, fight for land and natural resources while the gap between the haves and have-nots widens.

Sex trade and pollution

Development in Bali is also bringing stark health risks, namely HIV and AIDS, as sex workers from across Indonesia and Southeast Asia have flocked to the island to cash in on tourist cash.

Bali’s booming commercial sex trade has grown along with its tourism sector, with an estimated 10,000 prostitutes, mostly in Badung regency. HIV/AIDS infection rates among sex workers are estimated to be as high as 30 percent.

Meanwhile, increasing pollution has also become a major concern.

A two-year study by biologists at Udayana University in Denpasar found the presence of pollutants that exceed environmental quality standards at the main beaches of Legian, Nusa Dua, Jimbaran, Tanjung Benoa and Canggu.

The massive pumping of groundwater to feed the needs of businesses is also causing seawater to intrude into Bali’s water table at an alarming rate — at least five kilometers inland, the study said.

The pollution of Bali’s beaches and natural water supply is not a new issue but it has become more pronounced in recent years due to rapid growth.

Several environmental experts have blamed the pollution on the hotels’ laundry and waste-cleaning.

Locals are becoming more aware of this situation, as residents of a village in Kuta last year threatened to seal the newly-opened Tune Hotel over alleged water pollution.

Looking ahead, Bali is set to raise its profile higher still by playing host to a number of major events, including the 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and the 2014 Miss World pageant.

While development and investment from the tourism boom in Bali may appear positive in the short term — especially for those raking in profits — if not properly managed, as appears the case at the moment, it could have drastic consequences that may be impossible to reverse, turning the vaunted island of the gods into a tourist slum.

By Todd Elliott is an analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting. Jakarta Globe

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