Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bali: centuries in the making, close to breaking

 Once a serene island of colourful ceremonies, emerald rice terraces and elaborately carved temples, much of southern Bali is now infested with opulent hotels, "exclusive facilities" and "ocean sanctuaries". The outbreak of construction sites around the tiny island threaten many more of these buildings to come – many more than the roads, infrastructure or environment can handle.

The Balinese, whose regional governments control development, are eager parties to this relatively recent phenomenon. Tourist numbers are up by 9 per cent on last year. The economy is booming! Everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. No one wants to spoil the party of a culture on a suicide mission subsidised by affluent hedonists, seeking peace, tranquillity and harmony.

More than 3.2 million tourists visited Bali last year, using up scarce water resources and producing tonnes of rubbish, which the island's infrastructure couldn't handle. Plastic waste chokes the mangrove swamps and litters the beaches. There are signs everywhere of a looming cultural and environmental crisis, but the ubiquitous building sites indicate that no one is paying attention, at least not for the right reasons.

In January, the Jakarta Post reported on the moratorium on new hotels in southern Bali that Governor Made Mangku Pastika issued in early 2011. "It was designed to tackle the southern region’s room oversupply, as well as guiding investment to other regions in Bali." However, the Post wrote, new hotels continue to be built in southern Bali "as the moratorium was rejected by the regents and city mayor, who have the authority to issue hotel permits".


The Indonesian Tourism Industry Association Bali chapter is only concerned that the over-development will be "unattractive to international tourists" and that oversupply makes prices cheaper. The solution? Move it to other parts of the island. The writing is on the sheer white marble walls.

Thirty years ago, the small village of Ubud in southern Bali was surrounded by rice paddies and rainforest. Now Ubud spreads out for kilometres in all directions, a growing sprawl of resorts, where guests pay up to $700 a night, and the Balinese minimum wage is $123 a month. For $183, you can have a three-hour spa treatment at the Four Seasons that includes a "soul purification experience by a Balinese spiritual guru".

Who would have thought that Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, would take the form of ayurvedic massages, and infinity-edge pools with cantilevered floating Buddhas?

Thousands of tourists throng Ubud’s cracked footpaths, and busloads of Chinese arrive from the coastal resorts for the day. Everyone has come to see the "cultural heart of Bali", complete with clogged arteries.

Land, sold for tourism or bought up to protect the view, is disappearing quickly. Farmers who earn less than $5000 a year can now sell their land for about $35,000 per 100 square metres. Beside the spectacular rice terraces of Tegallalang, a dozen tourist buses line the side of the road. Local authorities charge for the right to park there and look at the view.

The traffic is relentless. Lines of tourist buses and four-wheel-drives, along with thousands of motorbikes, are squeezed into the clogged, narrow roads of small villages, which are morphing into one big town. The roads, bordered by family compounds and sacred temples, become one lane when cars are parked on the other side. The 43-kilometre drive from the airport to Ubud takes more than two hours.

Exquisite women in fitted silk kebayas still offer flowers and waft incense smoke towards holy statues, but it’s often against a noisy, jarring backdrop. One evening, I saw a temple ceremony struggling up the street against the traffic. Women with high conical baskets of fruit and flowers on their head, priests in white, musicians playing gamelan music, were walking to their temple, hemmed in on both sides by idling buses. The incense mingled in the air with diesel fumes.

The Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana teaches that the three causes of well-being are harmony with people, God, and nature. Now, the whole fabric of this ancient civilisation is under threat, trampled by tourists rushing to be "immersed in the mystique of this spiritual land".

Bali is 153-kilometres wide, and 112 kilometres from top to bottom, about the area from Sydney's central business district to Newcastle and out to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. This small, finite Hindu island lies alone in the vast Muslim archipelago of Indonesia. When most of the land is a web of hotels and traffic jams, that will be the end. There will be nowhere to go.

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