Bali, known as the "Island of the Gods," is a paradisiac destination celebrated for its enchanting landscapes, vibrant arts scene, and the warmth of its people. However, beneath this alluring facade, the island grapples with pervasive issues of inequality, cultural subsummation, and environmental challenges - exacerbated by its booming tourism industry and rapid development.
At the heart of this inequality is a stark contrast between urban and rural communities. The tourism industry, being the principal driver of Bali's economy, is highly concentrated in urban and coastal areas such as Denpasar, Kuta, and Ubud. These areas are vibrant with well-developed infrastructure, international hotels, restaurants, and a variety of tourism services. Conversely, rural areas, especially those in the island's interior, are significantly less developed.
This uneven development and resource allocation is often accompanied by the dispossession of local communities from their lands, particularly in coastal regions where land is acquired for tourism development. As land is a primary asset for the Balinese, this dispossession accelerates income disparity, affecting the livelihood of the indigenous people and exacerbating poverty levels.
The island's population jumped more than 70% from 1980 to 2020, to 4.3 million people, according to government census data. Tourism growth has been even more explosive: Less than 140,000 foreign visitors came to the island in 1980. By 2019, there were more than 6.2 million foreign and 10.5 million domestic tourists*. An increase in incidents involving tourists overstaying their visas, breaking taboos, breaking laws, and disrespecting sacred sites has roiled the island since tourism has roared back post-pandemic.
Tourism is an integral part of Balinese culture and economy providing 481,000 direct jobs, equating to 25% of the work force and supporting a further 55% thereby contributing 30% of Bali’s GDP. While many Balinese have benefited from tourism, it is estimated that 85% of the tourism economy is in the hands of non-Balinese, who may not be directly affected by tourism’s negative impacts, including the declining quality and quantity of water. It is within this socio-economic and political context that tourism accounts for 65% of water consumption*.
A tropical, volcanic island, Bali relies on water from three main sources: crater lakes, rivers and shallow groundwater, and a unique traditional irrigation system, called the "subak," distributes water through a network of canals, dams and tunnels. The subak, made a UNESCO site in 2012, is central to Balinese culture, representing the Balinese Hindu philosophy of "Tri Hita Karana"— harmony between people, nature and the spiritual realm.
Bali's 13 million annual visitors demand large quantities of fresh water, requiring greater capacity than the island can distribute.
While Bali does not have the megacities and infrastructure of other parts of the country like Jakarta and Surabaya, for example, economic and environmental inequality still exist. Addressing these issues necessitates a multi-pronged approach of diversifying the island's economy, investing in the development of rural areas, creating policies that safeguard land rights and cultural integrity, and implementing sustainable tourism practices. By doing so, the benefits of tourism and development can be more equitably distributed among the Balinese people, preserving the culture and allure that makes Bali truly an 'Island of the Gods'.