In Bali, ‘out of control’ tourism encroaches on agrarian, cultural roots

Luh De Suriyani
Tegallalang, Indonesia
In Bali, ‘out of control’ tourism encroaches on agrarian, cultural roots Made Satri places a basket of yellow rice offerings on a small bamboo shrine at the edge of her rice fields in Tegallalang, Indonesia, May 21, 2023.
Luh De Suriyani/BenarNews

Made Satri walks to the edge of her rice field, places a basket of yellow rice offerings on a small bamboo shrine and prays to the Hindu goddess of rice and fertility, Dewi Sri, for a bountiful harvest.

Satri, 60, and her husband are among the last holdouts working the land in Tegallalang, a district on the Indonesian island of Bali famous for its emerald-green rice terraces and swings that offer tourists panoramic views of the landscape below.

Around them, concrete structures are slowly gobbling up the greenery – cafes, restaurants and pools, where visitors sip coffee or swim while taking in the view.

“We will never sell, no matter how much money they offer,” Satri said of her rice field, which is 4,500 square meters (1.1 acres) and located north of the tourist hub Ubud.

Their story reflects the dilemma facing Bali as it tries to balance economic development with cultural heritage and the environment.

The island has long attracted travelers from around the world, but mass tourism has brought challenges – overcrowding, pollution, land conversion and an erosion of traditional culture.

Stories of unruly visitors flouting local customs regularly capture headlines on the predominantly Hindu island, and once-pristine green zones are increasingly dotted with garish villas. Many locals are fed up.

“It’s getting out of control,” said I Wayan Wilyana, who runs a travel agency in Bali. “Tourism is no longer as promising as it once was.”

One of the most distinct features of Bali’s landscape is an irrigation system called “subak,” a cooperative network that regulates water distribution among rice fields. 

The system also reflects Bali’s “Tri Hita Karana” philosophy that draws together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature.

Five rice terraces and their associated temples – one of which is in Tegallalang – using the subak system were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2012.

But as tourism encroaches on the natural environment, that heritage, which dates back to the 9th century, is at risk of fading away. 

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Tourists walk near rice fields irrigated by a traditional terrace system called a “subak” in Bali, Indonesia, April 18, 2022. [Tatan Syuflana/AP]

Paving paradise

Development and population growth are putting severe strain on water resources, an issue made worse by poor resource mismanagement, academics and environmentalists said.

According to local government data, 2020 saw the largest loss of farmland in Bali’s history, with about 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) converted for other uses.

A 2018 report published by the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit, estimated that Bali had lost nearly 25% of its agricultural land in the past quarter century, while its population and tourism industry have grown significantly – by 66% and 330%, respectively.

“Tourism has become an issue of agrarian, cultural and social injustice,” the report said.

In the relatively undeveloped district of Tabanan, I Gusti Nyoman Omardani, a member of the local legislative council, said 3,100 acres of rice paddies would be converted into tourist areas because they have become less productive in recent years due to a lack of irrigation, the Bali Sun reported last year.

Many rice fields in the area had already been turned into residential zones, he said.

Tegallalang is a prime example of how tourism is transforming the landscape and the livelihoods of Balinese.

Made Satya Bhuana, who runs a local cafe offering cultural activities for tourists, said many farmers have rented or sold their land to investors who have built tourist facilities on it.

“In the past, tourists only played on the swings and had coffee. Now they have swimming pools, too,” he said.

Despite the proliferation of new attractions, Bali tourism chief Cokorda Bagus Pemayun said the old favorites such as temples and mountains still draw the most visitors.

He acknowledged, however, that his office had not tracked the illegal construction of accommodations in green areas.

“We don’t have the data, but we have set the rules for where accommodation can be built,” he said. 

The provincial government has called for a halt to hotel development, but it has no authority to stop smaller forms of local government from granting permits, he said.

Tourism dilemma

Bali’s tourism industry has expanded rapidly since the 1970s, when a trickle of hippies and surfers were turned on to the island’s perfect waves and blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and magical beliefs.

Research suggests that tourism directly or indirectly accounted for more than 80% of the island’s pre-pandemic economy. 

But the coronavirus took a toll, sending visitor numbers plunging and causing losses of up to 9.7 trillion rupiah (U.S. $648 million) a month in early 2020, according to Deputy Gov. Tjok Oka Artha Ardhana.

Foreign arrivals recovered to 2.1 million last year, though the figure was a far cry from the 6.3 million foreigners who visited in 2019, data from the Indonesian statistics bureau showed. 

However, tourist numbers are bouncing back and this year Bali has been under strain from an influx of tourists, some of whom have sparked outrage among locals for their disrespectful or illegal conduct. 

At least 130 foreigners have been deported from Bali this year, according to immigration data.

Among them were two Russian bloggers who posed nude at sacred sites, while a German woman who stripped naked and stormed a dance ceremony in Ubud was recently arrested.

The bad behavior has prompted the Bali provincial government to issue a list of do’s and don’ts for foreign tourists.

As Bali’s reputation as a bustling holiday spot has grown, many Balinese said their culture was being compromised.

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Rice fields are seen in Tegallalang, Indonesia, May 21, 2023. [Luh De Suriyani/BenarNews]

I Made Sarjana, a researcher at the Center for Tourism Excellence at Udayana University in Denpasar, said that in recent years more farmers have rented or sold their land for villas or other facilities.

“Once the lease period ends, the land has changed and can’t be returned to agricultural land,” he said.

Bali’s challenge lies in how to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism on the environment, society and economy, he said.

“As bad as it is now, Bali can still survive, but without tourism, it’s impossible,” he said at a recent public discussion organized by Balebengong, a citizen journalism outlet in Bali.

Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno said the government planned to implement policies that would preserve Bali’s heritage and benefit the local economy.

“We are committed to preserving Bali’s culture and environment in a sustainable and quality way that we believe can create more employment and provide welfare for the people,” he said in a statement to the media this week.

Even some of Bali’s most sacred rituals have become rendered profane in the rush to meet tourists’ demands, said Wilyana, the travel agent.

He gave the example of the popular Hindu water-purification ritual known as “melukat” and “barong,” a dance that depicts the battle between good and evil.

“Today melukat is not always about spirituality. Most of my guests do it just for fun,” he said.


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Jun 04, 2023 03:47 AM

Tourists are not the reason of the massive construction going on in Bali. Constructors are. Most of them wealthy Indonesians from Jakarta. This article does no good for the recovery of Bali's economy and it is attacking it's primary source of wealth, tourism. Do more investigation and less defamation!

Jun 04, 2023 08:44 AM

The demise of agricultural land is a world wide issue that is best resolved with the application of centrally decreed and regionally consistent regulations.
Like many developing nations, Indonesia is burdened with a complex multi-level administrative structure that is both difficult to implement and impossible to enforce.
Sadly, money defines the priorities and the choice between a long standing and essential resource such as food production takes 2nd place to the lure of foreign income and the glamour of tourism.