Is Bali (still) Authentic?
Why should we come to Bali and has tourism changed the island over the years?
We are asked this question frequently, so we would like to give a coherent answer. But easier said than done, because any answer will be subjective, and can only reflect the views of one person or maybe a like-minded group of people.
Also, the question itself implies the judgement or opinion, that Bali might not be authentic anymore.
But who is to judge. What is an authentic holiday destination. It really depends on what people expect. Can an entire island and the people who live here, be assessed in such a way?
We believe, that a person is authentic when he/she speaks his/her truth and lives accordingly.
In that sense, Bali is very authentic.
Bali does not hide or pretend. The beautiful and the less beautiful aspects are open to see and witness for anybody. It is what it is and it offers what it offers, which is really quite a lot compared to any other island in Asia. Bali is not artificial – it shows its strengths and also weaknesses bluntly. Everybody can experience the grandeur and serenity of this wonderful place and 30min later experience the chaos of traffic, pollution, waste, corruption and even the horror of crime.
Although effected by mass tourism, Bali’s authentic culture and expression of religion, that has impressed millions of visitors since decades, and Bali’s unique and artistic way of doing things are omnipresent, still alive and very present. Wherever you go you will witness the famous Balinese lifestyle. Even in Kuta and Legian, the epicenters of sunburn, fake sunglasses, and cheap beer, it’s still there if you open your eyes (and heart) and take some time to observe.
Most small businesses, street shops, spas, restaurants on Bali are owned or managed by Balinese, doing it the Balinese style – integrating their business efforts into their daily personal life, that is still very influenced by local customs, Hindu religion and the culture.
If authentic means, that Bali hasn’t changed, then no! Bali has indeed changed a lot and for better or worse, change is part of life everywhere in the world. Some areas in Bali have changed very little, and some areas a lot. And the ones that have changed little still face problems like poverty, low hygiene, lack of water and electricity supply, lack of jobs and decent schools, little access to doctors and hospitals… .
If authentic means, that one can still find a Bali that looks and feels like 40 years ago, then yes. One can still find that old Bali, and surprisingly so, sometimes only a few steps behind a busy street in one of the major tourist areas. The South of Bali has been developed strongly and keeps attracting tourists and therefore investments. The lifestyle of Balinese has also changed and it is not up to us to point the finger at the people who sold their rice fields hoping to be able to make some money to live decently, pay hospital bills and send the kids to school. Bali is undergoing a transition from an agricultural society to a service oriented society. That’s big change and has happened in many developed parts of the world.
Are OUR Expectations Real?
Although tourists from developed countries would like to visit places that are “untouched” they still expect the infrastructure to enjoy a good holiday in air conditioned rooms, drinking water, nice pool, good food, free flow of alcohol, attractions and sightseeing, rent a car or scooter, a hot shower, airport facilities, taxis, friendly people, safety and “no” crime, clean beaches, large variety of restaurants, attractions and family parks, etc.
Loads has been written over the last few decades about the paradox of traveling and the effects it has on other cultures and the population. The all-so-ecofriendly backpackers are usually the ones starting the problem, and after they discovered the untouched others will follow and an industry has started.
There are places that were destroyed completely all over the world, because of some instagrammers promoting a “instagrammable spot” since the place could not cope with the sudden masses.
Declining number of Rice fields
This is always an emotional topic and you would not believe how many visitor to Bali have a very strong opinion about this and shw pictures how Seminyak for example looked like 30 years ago. It would be nice they would also bring some pictures of a suburb of Sydney or any other township, how their place looked 30 years ago and how much nature had to “be tken” to make space for settlements and infrastructure.
Yes, we love the beautiful sites of rice fields on Bali, and we do not like to see that some areas in the south of Bali have no or little rice fields anymore compared to the time when the first travelers arrived. This is one of the main complaints of returners…where have all the rice fields in the south gone. Greedy Balinese selling their rice-fields?
Nobody coming to Bali would be able to work on a rice field for even a day. It’s simply too hard work. Growing rice for the average farmer usually does not provide enough money to send the kids to school, let alone university. And the kids you see in the picture, they all have dreams, they all hope, that their island will provide for them with a future that will be something beyond working on rice fields and fruit plantations.
Only a few of those nice things so many want to enjoy when coming to Bali, is provided by farmers who work on rice fields. But those visitors also do not like to see poverty or farmer’s kids, that need to work in order to support the family, because growing any kind of food does not feed the family anymore – which by the way also has something to do with globalization.
And remember, our ancestors did not live in cities. They cut down forests to start agriculture and then the corn and potato fields had to make room for streets and buildings.
Rice fields are not nature in the true sense, they are cultivated land, and although they are healthier to the soil than the massive mono cultures that Monsanto wishes to see, there was most likely a lush jungle-like forest long time ago that had to be burned down where now the rice field is!
Bali has done a quite remarkable job, considering that millions of visitors come every year – since decades. Yes, more could have been protected, but if you drive just a few minutes off the beaten track you will see, that Bali is still very much field with beautiful nature, forests, ricefields and cultural heritages that are preserved and well taken care of.
Everywhere in the world people invent, construct, research, knock-down and rebuild etc seeking a better life. And they use the natural resources surrounding them – and first-world, developed countries have done so extensively. Now their governments run around asking the poorer countries to stop doing what they themselves have done for many decades aggressively: destroy nature for economic growth. And tourists from those countries who have the luxury of free schooling, social welfare etc. complain about the locals who sell their rice-field or cut the trees in their backyard to build a laundry service or a warung.
People don’t really ask whether Paris, Barcelona, Sydney, New York is still “authentic” in the meaning that it hasn’t changed, nor do they wish that nothing ever changes in those global mega-tourist destinations. To the contrary. But it seems that when it comes to islands and less developed countries, we run around expecting that our hosts and their homeland does not change. Romanticizing the idea of people who have nothing and are still happy. Something our society has never achieved or lost long time ago.
What is to come
Having said that, Bali faces social and particularly tremendous ecological challenges and tourism development is part of the problem indeed. But any city and area who has millions of visitors every year, particularly islands, have that problem. Some have solved it and some are yet in the process and some still need to face further problems before waking up. Mallorca, Ko Samui, Pukhet, Borakai, Hawaii, Maldives, etc… .
The good thing about Bali is, that Bali is progressive, creative, proud, and yes, rich compared to the other islands. There is a lot of investment from the big players already here, and that is worth being protected. The central government in Jakarta, although Indonesia is an Islamic State, needs Hindu Bali – The Island of the Gods. As a source of income and as a positive flagship to promote Indonesia as a whole. So Bali WILL solve its problems step by step and people will invest into water sewage systems, recycling plants and all the things Bali needs so desperately. Tourism is part of the problem but it will and already is part of the solution.
This might not happen over night and it will take efforts from all stakeholders to make it happen before things like traffic, pollution, and uncontrolled development gets more ridiculous.
Keep it Authentic and be Authentic
And you, as a visitor can be authentic too, keeping Bali clean and help to improve everybody’s Bali Experience. A place where locals and tourists enjoy a good and healthy time and life.
Also little things do count:
- stop using 5 plastic bottles a day, use refills
- take short showers
- bring and use eco-friendly soaps/shampoos
- take home your empty batteries, shampoo bottles etc
- ask the restaurants, hotels to stop serving drinks in plastic bottles, or at least don’t buy them
- ask restaurants, hotels to stop serving plastic straws, plastic cups,
- or avoid the global chains, that till sell coffee-to-go, food and drinks in plastic, as if recycling in Indonesia would exist
- don’t get everything packed in small plastic bags
- switch off the AC, lights, fans, laptops when you don’t need it
- ask hotels to stop using small shampoo bottles but use refill dispensers in the shower
- AND…stop bargaining to the last drop of blood and let “those hard working people” have some profit. You would not bargain at a Starbucks paying Rp.50.000 for a coffee neither
- if the scooter is old, load and “stinky” and loud, ask for a new one and be ready to pay a bit more
…the list is endless.
…visitors and tourists have more influence and power than they dare to admit at times. But admitting this comes with the responsibility to act accordingly. But so many are “on holidays and want to live carefree” for this time of the year.
Let’s be part of the solution and not be part of the problem
Is Bali Authentic?
Maybe as much as everybody else is 😉