Paradise regained

Bali sees tourism outlook improving but infrastructure and water challenges remain.

Agro-tourism and spectacular landscapes with a mixture of natural forests, beaches, lakes and volcanoes have helped Bali secure a solid reputation, attracting 7 million tourists a year, more than 2 million of them from outside Indonesia.

Tourists walk past a paddy field in Jatiluwih. The traditional Balinese irrigation and farming system known as Subak was officially recognised by Unesco for its world heritage values in June this year.

Popular for decades, the island has seen its tourist numbers jump since the release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 book Eat, Pray, Love, which later was made into a popular film starring Julia Roberts in 2010.

In the first nine months of this year, the number of foreign tourists coming to Bali already reached 2.16 million, a 10% rise from the same period last year, said Nyoman Wardawan, head of the Tourism Marketing Division, during a media briefing in Bali.

Mr Nyoman noted that many traveller surveys for years have named Bali the best island in Asia because of its unique landscape, rich cultural traditions and artistic heritage. Many tourists visit to see and be a part of cultural activities, as the island offers several festivals and traditional performances year-round.

Bali’s tourism office is optimistic that the island will achieve its target of drawing up to 3 million foreign visitors by the end of this year.

However, the tourism industry remains vulnerable to any news related to security and health issues. The massive terrorist bomb attack that killed more than 200 people a decade ago is far from forgotten by foreign travellers, especially Australians.

Australian holidaymakers account for about one-third of total foreign visitors to Bali, followed by visitor from China, Japan and Malaysia, Mr Nyoman explained.

“However, the island has also witnessed a strong increase in European tourists led by French and British, which is expected to rise in this period as most Western countries enter the colder seasons,” he said.

Bali has rebounded over the past decade since the 2002 tragedy and hotel occupancy has gradually improved year by year. According to the Indonesian Hotels and Restaurants Association, the average occupancy rate until the end of the year is predicted linger around 60%.

Bali had more than 2,200 starred hotels in 2011, with approximately 46,500 rooms, together with more than 1,600 restaurants. Of the total, 88.5% are in the south of the island in the area encompassing the capital Denpasar, Badung and Gianyar.

The biggest factors that have contributed to the success of Bali as a tourism destination have been the cooperative work of the private sector and the uniqueness of the island’s cultural and spiritual beliefs, said Dr Suthad Setboonsarng, a former Thailand Trade Representative.

“The role of Bali’s government is still not as strong compared to that of the private sector. There are many more things they can do to improve the island,” he said at a seminar on tourism development. “What I can see now is that Bali’s tourism organiser community has become stronger and tighter with an aim to attract more high-end visitors.”

However, in order to achieve that goal, Bali needs to face its most daunting barriers, which are its inadequate infrastructure and scarcity of clean water.

Despite the rise in total tourist numbers, visitors to Bali are now staying for shorter periods than they used to. According to the Bali Tourism Board, the average length of stay is now only three or four days instead of seven days, and tourists also spend only US$100 per day on average, while the figure used to be as high as $300.

Instead of blaming the tourists for staying for fewer days and spending less, industry leaders believe the island’s administration should take serious action to solve the problems that bother visitors, including traffic congestion. The number of private vehicles on the island, including cars and motorcycles has now reached 1.76 million. Private vehicle ownership is growing at 12% a year against just 2.3% growth in road network expansion.

Public transport is poor and availability limited, and thus the public is unwilling to use it. The southern parts of the island, where most tourism is concentrated, have become severely congested, with no immediate solution in sight.

Foreign tourists frequently complain that after visiting other parts of the island, they arrive back at their hotels late as the commute takes ages. Equally worrisome is the fact that the heavy concentration of vehicles is leading to an increase in pollution, which is a sure way to kill off the appeal of a tropical island to tourists.

“We are aware of the traffic problem here in Bali. Officials have been putting their best efforts into coping with the congestion by building toll roads, flyovers, underpasses and even bridges, which are considered to be very new to Balinese,” Mr Nyoman told Asia Focus.

These projects are expected to be completed in 2013, in time for the Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit that will be held on the island, he said.

The water scarcity, meanwhile, also poses a serious problem to the resort island. According to the local government, Bali could face a water crisis by 2015 if no urgent action to improve water management is undertaken.

Without any doubt, tourism is a major contributor to this impending crisis, as the industry is renowned for its overuse of water, absorbing up to 65% of the island’s total water supply.

The distribution of water is being diverted away from agriculture to tourism, resulting in inequitable shares between tourists and local residents. And unfortunately, most tourism stakeholders are still unaware of the urgent need of water conservation.

It is important to note that apart from the necessity for humans to survive, water also has a great religious significance for the Balinese. The paddy fields on the island traditionally have been built around water temples. The “Subak” system, which Unesco this year placed on its list of World Heritage sites of cultural or natural importance, is a traditional organisation that has long been used to manage local water distribution and irrigation.

It represents the belief that binds various small farmers together so that farming can be done by sharing available water evenly. Therefore, the transformation of paddy fields to concrete or to luxury hotels for high-end tourists also symbolises the erosion of Bali’s social and cultural values.

Bali is certainly in an important transition period, and is striving to find the balance between a growing tourism industry and protection of traditional economic and cultural activity. Tourism has already pushed aside the once-significant agricultural sector as a creator of greater economic benefit, possibly at a high cost.

It is essential to remember that heritage and cultural traditions, together with the well-being of local residents, have their own inherent values and that progress cannot be measured only in terms of tangible financial returns.

About the author

Writer: Nithi Kaveevivitchai