Bali’s Battle with Misbehaving Tourists

SimpleJoy
6 min readApr 8, 2023
Nusa Penida, Bali
Nusa Penida, Bali, Photo by Alfiano Sutianto on Unsplash

When I was a kid, Bali, a popular tourist destination, seemed so far away from my hometown in Central Java, Indonesia. It took about half a day to travel by train, then cross the Bali Strait by ferry, then drive to the lodging. There was no direct flight to Bali in the 1970s; we had to go to Jakarta first (which is in the opposite direction from the west, while Bali is on the east), and it cost a lot.

There were not so many tourists during that time—some westerners here and there and very few domestic ones. Unlike nowadays, the streets and beaches were almost empty.

Kuta Beach, Bali, 1970s
Kuta, Bali in 1970s, Credit: Bali.com and Clifford White

We have a phrase in Bahasa Indonesia: “di mana bumi dipijak, disitu langit dijunjung,” or “where the earth is stepped on, there the sky is upheld.” It means reminding us of the importance of respecting and adapting to local customs and traditions when we are in a place. It may be similar to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Javanese culture is more or less similar to Balinese in daily customs, though the majority of Javanese are Muslims, while the Balinese are Hindus. So it was not difficult for me to enjoy my time in Bali while obeying all the rules: not to step on sesajen, wear a sarong when entering temples, not to point feet at altars, etc.

Besakih Temple, Bali
Besakih Temple, Bali, source: Wikipedia

My favorite places were the temples. That’s right, not the beaches, with all due respect, but the temples. I loved to watch the Balinese do their rituals and bring their sesajen. Offerings to gods and spirits, called sesajen, are an important part of Balinese Hinduism and a way to show respect and gratitude to the gods and spirits.

Sesajen, source: Indoindians.com

I continued to visit Bali from time to time over the next five decades. As a teenager, I went there for holidays with friends. Later, as a parent, I brought my kid to enjoy our time during school breaks and, of course, to preserve my childhood memories.

It took a two-hour flight from Jakarta, so it became more frequent. As with many other tourists, this stopped once the pandemic happened in 2020.

My eyes were always on Bali: its people, culture, politics, and news. There were always major news stories coming out of Bali, whether they were bad, like the bombings in 2002 and 2005, or good, like the G20 Summit in 2022 or the COP 13 in 2007, but nothing like the news reported in the last few months, once the pandemic was over: misbehaving tourists.

Officers from Nusa Lembongan’s Klungkung Police Traffic Unit arrested four foreigners for a variety of serious violations. Three of the four people had custom license plates with a phone number and text message, and the fourth had a name branded on the plate.

This is just a start, and it's getting worse:

A video of a Russian couple riding their motorcycle into the sea has gone viral on social media.

What???

Locals on Indonesia’s popular holiday island are accusing Russians of stealing jobs as a result of the Ukraine war.

OK, now it seems like the Russia-Ukraine war is impacting Balinese, literally?

A group of tourists staying at a homestay in Jimbaran, a beach resort area in Bali, filed an official complaint against their next-door neighbor. They claimed that crowing roosters in the neighborhood kept them awake.

This is too much! But then I liked the next sentences:

Instead of mediating between the tourists and the rooster’s owner, top officials, including the head of Bali’s tourism agency, told the foreigners to respect local culture and even threatened to deport them if they made another complaint. I Wayan Koster, the governor of Bali, told Balinese locals to raise more chickens.

Two possible things occurred here. First, the tourists have been misbehaving since decades ago, but there has been little news about it since social media did not exist yet. Second, tourist behavior is getting worse nowadays, literally. Either way, this is not good news at all, and we can analyze this behavior from many perspectives.

Is it overtourism? Does the local economy’s reliance on tourism make it hard for authorities to enforce strict rules? Is focusing on short-term profits likely to lead businesses to cater to or ignore the bad behavior of tourists?

Kuta, Bali, 2022
Kuta, Bali in 2022, source: Tribun Bali

Is it ethnocentrism for some tourists to think that their own culture is better than the Balinese culture and to ignore local customs and practices?

Is it a phenomenon of “anonymity and lack of social control,” where tourists may feel a sense of anonymity and might believe that they will not face the same consequences as they would in their home country?

Does the rise of social media’s impact on tourism lead to a culture of looking for attention and approval online?

Should the types of tourists who act badly be demographically studied so that Balinese can better target their market or plan for how to deal with them?

  • Are younger tourists more likely to engage in risky or reckless behavior?
  • Do tourists with higher economic status feel a sense of entitlement or superiority, which could contribute to disrespectful or inappropriate behavior? And in contrast, do budget or “low-income” tourists contribute to misbehavior by seeking out cheap thrills or cutting corners, such as disregarding local regulations?
  • Are cultural norms, values, and practices from the tourists' home countries influencing their behavior?

The more I analyze it, the more questions I get than answers. Is this the way I ask Bali to remain the same as in the 1970s? If that’s so, who am I to tell the Balinese what to do? What do the Balinese really want for their own lives, places, and cultures?

It is not fair to ask Bali to remain the same as in the 1970s. Every place and society have changed, including my hometown in Central Java and the city where I now live, Jakarta. Why should I hold Bali accountable for its changes? Perhaps it is for a selfish reason—only to preserve my beautiful childhood memories.

Celebrated Galungan, source: IDN Times

On the other hand, if you look at the economic, social, and demographic factors of tourists in Bali, you can learn a lot about the things that cause them to act badly. Understanding these patterns could help local authorities and tourism businesses come up with targeted strategies and interventions to prevent these kinds of problems from happening in the future. This would make it easier for tourists and the local community to get along and treat each other with respect.

Bali may not always be the same, but I believe the Balinese, especially ordinary Balinese, have their own rights and their own answers for the future of Bali.

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SimpleJoy

Mother & aid practitioner 🌏 | Exploring cultural bridges 🌐, aid industry insights 🔍, and cherishing life's simple pleasures 🌸