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Boom Times in Bali


When I moved from Manhattan to Bali in 1999, tourism was long established in the beach resorts of Kuta and Sanur and the gorges surrounding the village of Ubud. But most of the island was still recognizably the tropical arcadia of travel brochures – where gentle rice farmers devoted themselves to the glamorous rituals of their unique religion.

Yet soon after the turn of the new millennium an astonishing, tourism-driven building boom began, which shows no sign of abating. A decade ago the island’s arid southern peninsula of the Bukit was virtually uninhabited outside the government-sponsored tourist enclave of Nusa Dua. Now it is chock-a-block with luxury hotels. North of Kuta, in Seminyak and along the west coast, ancient rice fields have been paved with holiday villas, thousands of them – and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

Life’s a beach – for the tourists. Some locals are benefiting from the boom – but at what price?

Murdani Usman / Reuters

That isn’t quite fair. Some of the new houses are fine works of architecture fitted out in exquisite taste; but most of them are built on the cheap for quick sale, spreading across the hillsides like a burgeoning fungus. The sheer volume of building over the past eight years has created an aesthetic crisis as the natural beauty of the island is immolated in the mad dash for foreign dollars. Supply now far exceeds demand. In 2010 the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism estimated that Bali was oversupplied with tourist accommodations by 9,800 rooms; in 2011 something like 10,000 more rooms opened their doors to visitors. The provincial government has declared a moratorium on hotel-building, in a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horses have bolted and the grooms have run off with the tack and saddles.

Fortunes are being made, no doubt about that. Land values in prime tourism areas continue to soar. In 2004 my partner and I signed a 20-year lease on a restaurant on Jalan Petitenget (Petitenget Street) in Seminyak. In those days it was a quiet area with a few budget resorts and tourist restaurants here and there amid the rice fields and cow pastures. If 10 cars drove by in an hour it was a busy day. Eight years later in peak season the road is jammed day and night, slowed to a crawl by the lumbering behemoths of concrete mixers and tourist coaches. Today, we could sell our restaurant for 15 times our initial investment, but we have no intention of doing so while the punters pack the place out night after night.


I resist writing about the Bali boom as it’s an invitation to hypocrisy. I live in a glass bungalow. Everyone here complains incessantly about the disastrous effects but most of us make our livelihoods from it. Yet the dangers are real, starting with the environmental impact of unrestricted building. Bali’s freshwater supply is steadily declining in the face of increasing demand. Environmentalists say that accelerating saltwater encroachment in tourist areas will soon present the threat of subsidence, resulting in sinkholes that could literally swallow up some of the new businesses. Yet here, as in most places, the dire predictions of environmentalists receive scant attention so long as the boom continues to generate big profits for investors.

Infrastructure likewise gives cause for concern. The electrical supply was inadequate when I arrived 14 years ago and the problem has grown gravely worse. Blackouts, both planned and unplanned, are frequent. The volume of traffic on the streets far exceeds the capacity of the roadways, which were built long before the emergence of a rising middle class (or what passes for such in Indonesia) to whom a car or a motorcycle is the principal status symbol.

Ancient rice fields have been paved with holiday villas, thousands of them – and they all look just the same

The buzz word here is ‘urbanization’. American novelist Diana Darling, a Bali resident for 30 years, wrote an essay for a local magazine describing the phenomenon: ‘All the marketing talk is about “tranquillity” and “lush tropical vegetation” and “ancient rituals”. But Bali is on its way to becoming a city without even trying: the urbanization of Bali is under way and nobody seems to be in charge.’ Urbanization may even be too benign a term, for that implies the delivery of some services to residents; but here everything is being done for the visitors. The concept of a park is as puzzling to the Balinese as the preservation of farmland would be in London.

Meanwhile, on Jalan Petitenget, I cope with the traffic by riding my push-bike; our water comes from a well in the garden. One thing I have learned from living in Indonesia is that life carries on perfectly well without electricity. Yet there’s no escaping the disruptive effects of the new economy on the social fabric. The boom has created thousands of service jobs, but soaring land values have put the cost of housing out of reach for most workers. The cheap boarding-houses that were once common are being torn down and replaced by yet more hotels, more villas, more tourist restaurants and chic little shops. My employees must move farther and farther away, adding yet more to the volume of traffic.

When I moved to my house on Jalan Petitenget, my bedroom window faced a rice field, with a fine view of the volcanoes in the north. Last year, the rice field gave way to a 24-hour mini-market that blocks the view of the mountains. Late at night, when their shifts end, the young employees of the new hotels and restaurants on Petitenget meet in the market’s car park to relax over beers before their long ride home. They make a racket, playing music and howling with laughter, but it’s hard to condemn them. They have nowhere else to go.

Lost ownership

My friend Odeck Ariawan, a restaurateur whose family has been prominent in Ubud for many generations, observes the transformation of his island: ‘At least 70 per cent of the investment in Bali comes from outside – some say 85 per cent. Yet it’s the Balinese who will pay the price for the problems and the social effects.’ He points out that money-laundering is one factor in the steep rise of land values, with many investments made in cash. From time to time at the bank I see people withdrawing bricks of banknotes, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in a cardboard box. What are they buying?

Odeck asks a challenging question: ‘If the Balinese are losing ownership of the land, and with so many outsiders coming in, can we still call it Bali?’

Evidence of thuggery is commonplace, but tourists are completely unaware of the phenomenon

The influx is coming not only from investors and tourists but also from within Indonesia. Most of the workers doing the building here are poor migrants from east Java who live in jerrybuilt deal shanties on the construction sites. After dark, when their workday ends, they stroll in quiet groups toward the few remaining marketplaces that cater to them, miles away, to spend their wages ($3-$7 a day) on noodles, fried dough and cheroots – they can’t afford real food or real cigarettes. These meek, exhausted young men and adolescent boys are all but invisible to the tourists dressed in spotless white linen who pass them on the footpath, headed for cocktails and a threecourse dinner at one of the fashionable new watering-holes.

As so often occurs, clashes between the different clans of the dispossessed are on the rise. Genteel anti-Javanese prejudice is common among the Balinese at every social stratum and, among the young, resentment sometimes turns violent. At one restaurant in Seminyak, directly opposite the most lavish new resort in the neighbourhood, a Javanese night guard who caught a gang of local lads stealing orchids from the garden was beaten so severely that he required reconstructive surgery. Such anecdotal evidence of thuggery is commonplace, but tourists are completely unaware of the phenomenon. Foreign visitors in Indonesia are treated with the utmost politesse.

Tee time in Bali: a tourist plays golf from a tee surrounded by paddy fields. Farmland is being sacrificed to make way for development – leading to soaring food prices.

Murdani Usman / Reuters

As I said, I try to resist writing about the changes in Bali: I’m too deeply complicit. I want you to visit us; everyone should come to Bali at least once. It never was a paradise. That was the dream of naïve early visitors which was then appropriated by the cynical marketers who came after them. If you let yourself be put off by traffic jams and irregular rubbish collection, you cut yourself off from most of the world east of Istanbul.

Diana Darling writes: ‘The wish to conserve Bali is something like the wish to stay young.’ The standard line around here has long been that traditional Balinese culture is indestructible, and there’s as much truth in it as there ever is in wishful thinking. The values of the Balinese themselves are under attack by the forces that are transforming most places in our world – the relentless cycle of getting and spending in a global economy.

Jamie James’ most recent book is Rimbaud in Java: the Lost Voyage (Editions Didier Millet, Singapore). He and his partner own and operate Waroeng Bonita in Seminyak, Bali.

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