Is Tourism Enough To Survive? - The need for sustainable practices in popular getaways

Hawaii, Bali, the Maldives – three tropical paradises that thrive on tourism. Tourism has long been the main industry supporting these popular getaway spots; inviting visitors from all over the globe and vastly contributing to their economies. At the same time, it is the vital factor that supports their status as holiday hotspots. There is no doubt that the industry has shaped the areas’ identities, just as coconut bikinis and flower leis have become nearly synonymous with Hawaii’s image. With travelers flocking to these sites and simultaneously feeding related businesses, tourism appears to be a prospective approach. But on the long run, will it continue to be sustainable? Especially if it is essentially the only primary source of income?

Among the aforementioned three, Bali is an exemplary case for its heavy reliance on tourism. A speck among the numerous islands of Indonesia, Bali fascinated many a foreigner over the course of its history, many of whom were artists during the 1920s-30s. Figures such as Rudolf Bonnet, a Dutch painter, "played a key role in helping set up the Bali Museum in Denpasar" (Book: "Balinese Painting and Sculpture" by Adrian Vickers). The interaction with travelers not only shone light on the island’s unique culture but also lead to development, particularly in the art sphere. Pulling in 3 million holidaymakers in 2012, the island has made itself a successful resort admired by visitors near and far. 

Besides the extravagant hotels and vast collections of souvenirs, Bali lacks significant industries that are not affiliated with tourism. Unlike New Caledonia, a similar warm location famed for its beaches but also a ground for nickel mining, Bali’s only major economic asset is tourism. Judging from its long-standing position as a key vacation site, relying on tourism alone may not be too worrying. This tactic though, may prove to be disastrous later on. To begin with, tourism itself fluctuates – trends ebb and flow over time, along with sociopolitical factors such as public order. Due to the Bali bombings in 2002, a terrorist attack that targeted foreigners, negative images and growing concerns regarding safety served to undermine the tourism industry. Such incidents can deal a heavy blow to the land and its people, indicating the unstable nature of the business. It is best for Bali to create a ‘safety net’ of different paths or methods for times of unrest. 

Image: Balinese beaches are a sight to behold with clear waters and rich marine life - various species of fish and seaweed inhabit this haven (photo by author)

Another issue lies in the presentation of the culture to tourists. In other words, commodifying or reducing culture for the sake of entertainment. Souvenirs are of course vital to travelers as gifts and mementos to capture fleeting times of bliss. It becomes problematic when the area’s identity and cultural significance is stripped away from its goods. The famous traditional dance kecak has become, more or less, a popular spectacle directed towards tourists. Although the dance is now ubiquitous, even taking place at premium hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton, the fact that a religious performance is geared towards appeasing foreigners is troubling. It may be argued that this stance is positive, for educating tourists about the island’s culture, but nevertheless deserves attention in regards to orientalism and capitalism. 

Environmental degradation is another critical area of concern; an issue that plagues other seaside resorts. Greatly contrasting from the aquamarine-colored, crystal waters, plastic litter of all sorts constantly wash up on the beach. Bottles, candy wrappers, and other garbage are virtually strewn everywhere, the majority coming from Indonesia as indicated by their printing in Bahasa. This is no mystery as Indonesia produces about 130,000 tonnes of plastic and solid waste every day. In addition to this influx of trash, tourists also litter usually by losing their belongings such as beach toys or by lack of manners. To make things further ironic for a country that profits from its natural beauty, large areas of previously pristine rice paddies are being concreted over to make way for new construction and development. Despite intentions to further accomodate tourists and consequently, fuel the Balinese economy, urbanization takes a heavy toll. With water pollution and deforestation, the island must confront its environmental issues and draw the line between conservation and development.

Image: Cleaners (in blue uniform, wearng straw hats) daily pick rubbish on the beaches belonging to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (photo by author)

Last but not the least troublesome, is the limited selection of jobs. Since more than 80 per cent of the Indonesian island’s economy relies on tourism, a vast number of valuable human resources are directed to this homogenous economic pool. Not surprisingly, most people are employed either in the tourism industry in the south of the island, or work in subsistence farming and agriculture. So for a Balinese searching for a career, options are very few. One way or another, a Balinese laborer is frequently affiliated with tourism or a related task. It is undeniable that the tourism sector is promising, considering the fact that over 100 million Indonesians still scrape by on just $2 a day. Hence, taxi drivers in Bali are often composed of mainland Indonesians or natives from neighboring islands seeking better pay. 

Image: A selection of premium chocolate bars made by Krakakoa; sustainably produced and beautifully packaged (photo by author)

Blessed with natural gifts of sea, forest, and warm climate, paired with a colorful culture of delectable cuisine and detailed craftsmanship, Bali deserves to be more than just a tourism-dependent resort. Applying to similarly branded or "exotified" areas like Hawaii, external sources of income should be developed and serve to assist Bali's independence. Tourism is and will continue to be a key industry, but may eventually be eased of its role of chief economic force. There are hopeful signs that offer insight into the island's progress. For instance, chocolate making is a notable busniess. One company, Krakakoa, specializes and promotes high-quality chocolate with the mission to improve the livelihood of Indonesian cocoa farmers and the sustainability of cocoa farming (above). Delicious, healthy, and ethical in environmental and humanitarian terms, their products are representative cases of Bali's flowering self-awareness and autogestion.

Just as the official site of the Bali Government Tourism Office states, Bali is gifted with...fertile soil, abundant water resources, [and] friendly but cool weather. Areas such as Bali harbor plenty of opportunities that are yet to be used. It is also necessary to address the voices of the citizens, for the land belongs to them and their opinions are indispensable in building a better community. One's land and culture do not solely exist for the pleasure of others, nor to be treated as exotic entertainment.