The annual monsoon transforms Bali. Rain sweeps across slumbering volcanoes.
Moss thickens on ancient temple walls. Rivers swell and flush their trash
and frothing human waste into the sea off Kuta Beach, the island’s most
famous tourist attraction, where bacteria bloom and the water turns muddy
with dead plankton. “It happens every year,” shrugs Wayan Sumerta, a Kuta
lifeguard, who sits with his love-struck Japanese girlfriend amid dunes of
surf-tossed garbage. So why, in early March, did the Bali authorities warn
tourists that swimming here for over 30 minutes could cause skin infections?
Sumerta tenderly strokes his girlfriend’s naked leg. “I guess some people
just have sensitive skin,” he says.
Itchy ocean? Just add it to Bali’s growing list of seemingly intractable
problems: water shortages, rolling blackouts, uncollected trash, overflowing
sewage treatment plants, and traffic so bad that parts of the island
resemble Indonesia’s gridlocked capital Jakarta. And don’t forget crime. In
January, amid a spate of violent robberies against foreigners, Bali police
chief Hadiatmoko reportedly ordered his officers to shoot criminals on
sight. You’ve heard of the Julia Roberts movie Eat, Pray, Love, which was
partly filmed here? Now get ready for its grim sequel: Eat, Pray, Duck.
Most of Bali’s woes stem from a problem that rival resorts would love to
have: too many tourists. In 2001, the island welcomed about 1.3 million
foreign visitors. Ten years later and despite bombings by Islamic extremists
in 2002 and 2005 that killed 222 people, mostly Australian tourists the
island expects almost twice that number. And there are millions of
Indonesian visitors, too.
Hotels, shopping centers and restaurants are springing up everywhere to
accommodate them. The cranes looming over Kuta are building at least three
malls and a five-star hotel. But the less glamorous stuff roads, power
lines, sewers, parking spaces often remains an afterthought. “The
infrastructure is not keeping up with the development,” says Ron Nomura,
marketing director at the Bali Hotels Association. The island’s lack of
reservoirs, he says, is a case in point. “Can you believe there is this much
rain and we don’t have enough water?”
When it comes to Bali, newspaper editors have a seemingly bottomless stock
of “Paradise Lost?” headlines. Its rich Hindu culture is so distinctive that
many people mistake the island for a separate country rather than a province
of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. That Bali’s tourism industry has
survived terrorism attacks and a global recession is a cause for pride. But
amid unchecked growth and a creaking infrastructure, it is also a source of
complacency. “It’s like Bali is slowly committing suicide,” says local
journalist Wayan Juniarta.
Bali’s governor Made Mangku Pastika knows it. In January, he issued a
moratorium on new construction in certain built-up areas, and later warned
that his lush birthplace might turn into a “dry land full of concrete
buildings.” Pastika is popular he investigated the bombings as Bali’s former
police chief but his moratorium isn’t. “Some people says he’s trying to slow
down Bali’s growth,” says Nomura. “That’s not necessarily true. What he’s
looking for is more responsible growth.”
He probably won’t find it. Nobody I talked to reckoned that Pastika’s
measures would influence who built what where. Bali’s spiritualism might be
a bewildering blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism, but its planning code
is simple: If you build it, they will come.
And on the way, they’ll get stuck in traffic. Complaining about the
congestion around the airport or in tourist areas such as Kuta is now one of
Bali’s newest pastimes. Even in Ubud, the seat of the island’s art and
culture, once-sleepy streets are clogged with buses carrying Chinese
tourists, who visit the island in ever greater numbers. Vehicle ownership on
Bali is rising at an annual rate that far outstrips the growth in
new roads , according to government statistics. “Traffic will get
worse and worse,” Made Santha, Bali’s traffic chief, predicted in February.
Equally damaging to Bali’s prestige is the perception among some expatriates
that the island is increasingly unsafe. Lusiana Burgess, the 46-year-old
Indonesian wife of a retired British pilot, was robbed and killed in her
North Kuta home earlier this year and her murderer remains at large. An
Australian woman awoke in her villa to be gagged and assaulted by four
thieves. Then an American man was stabbed during another robbery attempt in
Kuta. A week after that, police arrested and following an apparent escape
attempt shot dead 34-year-old M. Syahri from the neighboring island of
Lombok, who was suspected of robbing a number of foreigners.
The statistics actually show a slight decrease in serious crime between 2009
and 2010. But Chris Wilkin, a former oil company executive from the UK who
retired in Bali six years ago, remains uneasy. “It was very quiet when I
moved here,” he says. “It wasn’t a big attraction for the criminal classes.
Now, with the boom, word has got round that there are easy pickings to be
Wilkin, whose Indonesian wife rents villas to expats and knew Burgess,
believes the threat of violent robbery will discourage foreigners from
leasing properties in remote places. Investing in CCTV, intrusion alarms and
bedside panic buttons may only “give a false sense of security,” he says.
Recently, Wilkin accidentally set off his burglar alarm. Nobody came to
investigate, not even the private security guards in his own complex.
Expat anxiety hasn’t dented Bali’s popularity among its core visitors, the
Australians. And why should it? Officially, the Australian government still
advises its citizens to “reconsider your need to travel” to Bali due to a
“very high threat of terrorist attack,” yet more than a hundred flights
arrive here from Australia every week. The dangers to new arrivals are those
commonly faced by tourists everywhere: dodgy food, motorbike accidents,
and as a sign at my Kuta hotel suggests beer-fueled misadventure.
A new terminal to Bali’s shabby airport is due for completion in 2013. But
unless other infrastructure is improved, this will serve only to channel yet
more tourists onto a critically overburdened island. For now, however, such
doubts are largely forgotten in the rush to cash in on the Bali boom.
“Goodness shouts, evil whispers,” runs an overused Balinese proverb. But
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