Text & Photos by Anton Vaisman
An unforgettable 3 night homestay with a Balinese family opened my eyes on the Island and its people in a new level. I'd truly fallen in love with the island – as have millions of others who get to visit Bali. The amount of tourists has created a mass tourism industry in the island, which has created wealth but not without a cost: water shortages, lost ownership of the land, misuse of the water sources and money flow to abroad. As the number of arriving tourists is rising so is the severity of the problems. In this blog post I gather some issues to worry about but also some solutions on how to tackle them.
How I ended up in Bali in the first place was due to conducting a Bachelor’s Thesis project for Duara Travels, a company that I had admired and followed closely during my Tourism Management studies. I decided to mix work and leisure and head up to Bali for the whole autumn of 2018, where I combined working on the Thesis project with relaxing and exploring the island.
My stay in Duara’s destination, Sindu village, was in December which is the rainy season in Bali. Thus, the nature was lush, and the air was fresh. During the hike we took with my local family, water was flowing in the canal which we walked by and it rained a bit through the whole hike. On the track I was told that lately there had been lots of problems with having enough water and some crops had to be changed because the water wasn’t enough for water-needy rice. As the humidity was near 100% it was very hard to imagine that there would be some problems with water in here.
As we reached the rice fields, the rain ceased – for 5 minutes – and then burst open 5 times stronger and we actually had to be picked up by the mother of the host-family.
However, as I heard more about the problem and did some further reading when I got back to the town, it seems that many people are experiencing water shortages. A single Google-search shows dozens of articles describing the water problem of Bali and even a looming water crisis by 2025. Without water, there is no life. Thus, this seemed like a big deal. And it was.
Why is there a lack of water?
As I was reading, all the articles seemed to point to the same culprit: the growing tourism industry. Tourism is a very water-intensive industry – an average tourist in Bali spends about five times more water compared to a local resident. And in Bali – there are lots of tourists. The small tropical island is the 20th most visited destination in the whole world with 8 million annual foreign visitors and approximately another 8 million domestic visitors. The island’s infrastructure is not keeping up with the numbers. On the top of everything – there is lots of mismanagement and corruption.
Here are some concrete examples causing water shortage:
The villas and hotels build water-pumping systems that go deeper than allowed. This causes that the levels of groundwater decrease. Local people with normal wells can’t reach the water anymore.
The source of water in the fields has been traditionally a Balinese water irrigation system: subak - going back to the 9th century. Some hotels and villas divert the water to themselves, leaving the farmers with less water.
The forest and soil act as a sponge collecting the groundwater. With increasing amounts of concrete built, the water does not absorb into the ground. This decreases the water level in the ground and during the rainy reason causes floods.
When the level of the groundwater gets too low, there is a danger of saltwater intrusion, meaning that the fresh groundwater is replaced by salty sea water. This would cause irrefutable effects on the locals and tourists alike.
Some preventive measures are under way, but with the increasing number of tourists, it’s complicated
By talking with my host-family, I got a totally new perspective on things. On the surface, and following the usual ‘customer-path’ everything in Bali actually seems to be in order. However, there are some problems and without seeing them, they cannot be fixed. So that the beautiful island would to survive for next generation, the problems need to be acknowledged and solved.
While chatting with the family and other locals I learned about some other ongoing issues related to the industry:
Locals are losing the ownership of the land to non-Balinese investors. Usually the land is sold by locals but there has been reports on illegally claiming the land. This land is then converted to villas and hotels. Bali is an agrarian society and the land is an essential part of the Balinese culture. Thus, every time land is sold, part of Balinese culture is lost.
Another problem is that the money from tourism does not really stay on the island. Tourism has created jobs and wealth but often the revenue is leaking out of the island. At the moment 85% of the tourism business is owned by non-Balinese. Local people with generations of connection to the land now work with ridiculously low wages for non-local owners.
After the trek, we gathered on the verandah and the rain got even stronger. Under a shelter and with local snacks, and locally produced spirit called Arak Bali, the rain didn’t bother at all. Actually, it was pretty nice – the sound of rain was soothing, and it made the air fresh. These were the moments that were imprinted to my mind – the real travel experiences.
What to do?
AT THIS POINT ARISES THE QUESTION OF WHAT WE CAN DO AS INDIVIDUAL TRAVELLERS. SHOULD WE FEEL ASHAMED THAT WE ARE TRAVELLING? SHOULD WE STOP TRAVELLING TO THE GLOBAL SOUTH ALTOGETHER? IT WOULD BE SUCH A SHAME TO MISS EVERYTHING THAT I WAS NOW EXPERIENCING IN BALI.
As I discussed with my host-family as well as others, they clearly did not want the tourism industry to stop. They, in fact, are very happy that the number of tourists is growing. The island’s economy is very dependent on tourism. According to some sources 80% of the island’s economy, when indirect and direct production is combined, depends on tourism. Thus, the path to go forward should be in minimizing the negative effects of tourism and maximizing the positive ones.
The solutions to lots of the problems surely need a response from the local governmental actors. However, these changes are often slow and the policy enforcement might be lacking. We as foreigners do not have much chance to affect the local authorities.
Businesses on the other hand are much more rapid. They track constantly our preferences and demands and adapt their business accordingly. This gives us travellers the opportunity to impact our purchasing decisions and demands.
Domestically we can demand our governments to hold travel businesses responsible for their social impact. In fact, a campaign in my home country Finland, has been launched to demand regulations on companies. After the pushing – it seems that the government will be making a new law to require companies to abide to social responsibility, which would include our travel companies to build sustainable partnerships in Global South.
As I was staying in Sindu, I knew exactly where the money went due to the fair and transparent business model of Duara Travels. I was enjoying exactly the same locally sourced food as the family and using the same facilities than everyone else – consuming much less water than an average tourist.