This post is in association with a press stay at Sahaja Sawah Resort.
It’s one of the hottest travel destinations right now, but is tourism damaging Bali? I love Bali. My first experience of the Indonesian Island was the side that tourists often know and love: I spent a week in an ultra luxury 5* resort. I dined at beautiful restaurants and kept exclaiming things like “Can you believe it’s only £30 for dinner?!” Naively, I thought that classed as cheap. I plunged in the sun in Seminyak, sipped colourful cocktails as the sun went down and – when I fancied a change of scene – ventured to one of the bouji day clubs like Mrs Sippy or Potato Head. Honestly? It was fantastic.
More than meets the eye?
Even just in that week in Seminyak though, I began noticing that there was a side to Bali that nobody was talking about or Instagramming. Behind the luxury resorts were streets with countless jumbled electricity cables hanging precariously, broken pavement, stray dogs and horrendous traffic. The roads just cannot cope with the levels of tourism.
I Googled average salaries for hospitality workers in Bali. I know each economy is different, but it left a bad taste. What must they think – I thought – serving drinks orders that amount to more than their weekly family income?
As tourists it’s easy to pretend that Balinese religions and customs can exist symbiotically with western culture but the reality is it’s usually the Balinese people sacrificing for our holiday fun.
It’s also really important to be aware that the places you see are not owned by Balinese people. The money isn’t often even staying in the country. All those hotels and clubs used to be rice fields and in selling them to developers, locals have lost their sustainable income.
I’m not naive, I know this is a struggle not just limited to Bali and that tourism does have a lot of economic benefits too.
A guilt free alternative
I’ve spent (almost) the last two months in this beautiful country and I’ve learned a lot since being here. Since my last visit, in September 2018, new restaurants have opened where I previously saw building sites. It’s impossible to be virtually anywhere in Canggu – so popular with surfers and digi nomads – without hearing or seeing some sort of construction. Bali is growing fast.
Last month I had the pleasure of venturing into ‘real Bali’ to visit Sahaja Sawah. Nestled amongst the rice paddies near Tabanan with reaching views out to the ocean, the resort is 100% not for profit. Not only does it give back everything it makes to the local communities but it also tries to educate guests as to the impacts of tourism on Bali.
Whilst staying, I had the humbling pleasure of meeting local villagers who were keen to show me their homes. It’s hard not to feel reverent when someone lacks basics like running water and instead, showers and uses the loo by trekking down to a nearby (filthy) river. Just 30km down the road you’ll find tourists lounging about a giant pool on floating beanbags, showing off who can do the best trick off the 5m diving board. Sahaja has worked hard to supply taps and provides water filters to local families. All tourists to Bali know that the water isn’t safe to drink and if it isn’t for us, it isn’t for the locals either.
It’s really not all doom and gloom. Through profits from the resort and generous donations from guests, Sahaja has rebuilt a house for a local family, provided fishing boats, taught skills such as massage to local people so they can earn via trade and are currently in the process of building a school.
The catch? Well, there isn’t one because the resort itself offers absolutely everything you’d expect from a luxury Bali holiday. You’ll find villas with private pools overlooking the rice paddies, extensive room service, a spa and included scooter rental so you can explore the local sights. This in itself is so worthwhile because you can enjoy Balinese culture and beauty away from the masses. You’ll zoom down palm tree lined roads to the black sand beaches (breathtaking!), see completely unspoilt rice terraces (unlikely the crazy crowds you’ll find in Ubud) and explore huge waterfalls.
So, is tourism damaging Bali? Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the best of both worlds. I’m not going to condemn Seminyak, the swim up bars and the top quality western restaurants because fundamentally, I enjoy them too. However, do it knowing what else is out there and with respect for the local people.
I learnt a lot of tips first hand from the wonderful Balinese people at Sahaja explaining how to behave respectfully as a tourist in Bali which I’ll be sharing in another post!
Learn more about Sahaja Sawah here. This booking link will also get you 10% off with code ‘beth’.
If you’d like to donate a water filter you can do so here.