Can you love a place to death? That's the question being asked more and more on Bali. As visitor numbers continue to soar like a kite over Sanur, more than a few people are wondering if the island has finally reached saturation point. From the ever-worse traffic to the proposal to fill in Benoa Bay (Teluk Benoa) for a tourist city, the ramifications of the island's popularity are all around.
Protecting Benoa Bay
A drive on the elevated toll road linking Sanur to Nusa Dua offers sweeping views of the mangroves ringing the shallow Benoa Bay. Five of Bali's polluted rivers empty through these forests and this ecosystem is vital for filtering out the trash and some of the pollutants.
On 25 August 2018, local environmental activists rejoiced when the permit for the 30-trillion-rupiah Benoa Bay Reclamation Project expired after PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional (TWBI), Indonesian tycoon Tomy Winata’s Artha Graha conglomerate property development unit, failed to acquire government approval on environmental impact assessments for the project.
The proposed Benoa Bay reclamation project would have potentially devastated the bay and mangroves. The consortium backed by powerful Indonesian developers wanted to build a network of 12 artificial islands in what's still the open waters you see from the toll road. A whole slew of projects would have followed, including a theme park, golf course and Formula One race course, plus countless condos, resorts and malls. Only a few channels would have remained to enable the river water to flow out into the ocean, which would have ceased to provide much benefit in the way of mangrove filtering.
After decades of getting knocked around by developers and offering little protest, the Balinese were up in arms over the Benoa Bay project, which struck a real nerve: first, 70 Hindu holy sites would have been affected. Second, the island already had a nascent environmental movement as people grew increasingly fed up with once pure rivers turning into toxic cesspools filled with trash. And third, a growing Bali nationalism was and remains fuelled by the perception that outsiders (primarily the well-connected from Jakarta) are getting rich off the island and leaving just a few crumbs for the locals.
Starting in 2015 and continuing right through to the project's permit lapse, protests grew larger and louder. Anti-reclamation, pro-Balinese-pride banners from groups such as Tolak Reklamasi (Reject Reclamation), Bali Not for Sale (www.facebook.com/balinotforsale) and ForBali (www.forbali.org) demonstrated across the south. Rallies drew tens of thousands, including celebrities like the famous Indonesian punk band Superman is Dead.
Though TWBI lost the government's concession, their officials claim that the project's termination sets a bad precedent for Indonesia's investment climate due to uncertainty over acquiring permits. The claim is that development of Benoa Bay is inevitable and that ongoing proposals for expansion of the Benoa Port and Ngurah Rai airport, plus construction of another airport in north Bali, will necessitate coastal reclamation – and TWBI is just one of many development companies that has expressed interest in undertaking such plans.
While there was widespread popular opposition to the project, the political variety was minimal. Once earmarked as a conservation zone in 2011, the area lost its conservation status after a regulation change by 2014-outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). His successor, the self-styled man of the people Joko Widodo, stayed mum despite high-profile entreaties for him to restore the protections. Bali's former governor, Made Pastika, carved out quite a reputation as an environmentalist (he tried to ban plastic bags, for example), but on the landfill project he essentially said that nothing should stop it before he announced he would not run for another term at the 2018 election. Newly elected governor Wayan Koster ran on a platform against the development of Benoa Bay and has promised official policy delineation after his September 2018 swearing-in.
In 2012, Unesco added Bali's ancient and truly amazing rice-field irrigation system (subak) to the World Heritage List. One key component of the listing are the Jatiluwih rice terraces north of Tabanan. These drop-dead gorgeous ribbons of green already drew a small number of day-trippers, but after Unesco put their stamp on the terraces, the road through this emerald wonderland was soon clogged with tourists. Ugly cafes soon sprang up, all jostling for the views, while tour groups on ATVs began rampaging across the fields. Developers announced plans to bulldoze terraces for hotels and it seemed that Jatiluwih would go the way of Canggu and Sideman, two places where unspoilt green vistas have been plowed under for profit.
But, then, in 2015, Unesco called time, suggesting that the coveted World Heritage Site designation could be snatched back. With impending inspections by the World Heritage Committee, the normally ineffectual Bali central government managed to enact a building ban.
In 2017, the World Heritage Committee examined the Balinese government's strategic plans for sustainable tourism and conservation. While they were commended for progress made, the committee put forward requests for further measures, including improvements to management of water quality and natural resources. Balinese officials have been urged to designate the island's rice fields – Jatiluwih in particular – as national strategic areas and to ensure environmental and heritage impact assessments are conducted for any forthcoming developments. An updated report is set to be submitted in December 2018 ahead of a 2019 World Heritage Committee session, when the verdict will be made.
Nearly every tourist on Bali enjoys a drink. Thus proposals by religious conservatives in the Indonesian legislature in 2016 to ban alcohol across the nation caused a few minor strokes in Bali's tourism industry. Although the proposals were not passed, it's expected that they will resurface again. How Bali responds – both on the tourist industry side and on the cultural side (Bali's Hindus have no cultural taboo on drinking) – will be a major topic in the coming years.