Bali: A rubbish filled tropical shocker

We landed in Bali with curiosity bubbling over. I had only ever seen photos of Bali enticing would-be tourists to come to these far away sand swept shores. As an American, Bali has always been an unreachable exotic luxury island on the other side of the globe. Far too expensive and too far away for American tourists, it has always held an air of exclusivity.

After marrying an Australian, I had come to realise that it’s a popular beach holiday destination for Australians – a sort of Cancun for antipodeans. This beach resort/ party town clashed with the images I held in my head, and so my expectations were somewhat confused.

We weren’t even sure we’d make it there. Bali’s Mount Agung volcano had been erupting off and on for weeks, and airports had been closed, reopened, closed and reopened again several times. At the time, China had closed all flights to Bali, and so we were keeping our plans to fly there from Bankgok relatively loose.

We were stopping over in Bali en route to Perth for the Christmas holidays. Mark’s brother and his family were holidaying in Bali, and we were joining them for the last four days of their trip before we all flew “home” together a few days before Christmas.

First impressions

When we arrived, I was filled with excitement. The design of the airport is gorgeous. Traditional carved wooden gables that sweep into high peaks adorned the building facing the runway. Inside, the airy white roof rolled in dreamy curves reminiscent of the underside of waves curling into the beach. Outside, we were greeted by distinctly Balinese styled brick “gates” that led you from the airport to the waiting taxis. If there was any doubt about having arrived in a holiday destination, the airport tells you without question that you’re in a resort.

We stayed in Legian, a small village on the long beach that stretches the length of the island. The in-laws were at a gorgeous resort, and to accommodate our travel budget, we had booked into the aging resort next door. Once we had checked into our room, we went for a walk down the beach to join up with the family and start our holiday together.

The beach was shocking.

Mounds of discarded plastic lined the beach as far as the eye could see. Fresh rubbish washed onto the beach with each incoming wave. The line of waste was continuous, and deep. Fragments of plastic permeated the sand as far down as you could dig, and as far back as the beach reached. You couldn’t lift a handful of sand without hundreds of plastic bits mingling with the grains of sand. Parts had been bulldozed clean, only for the rubbish to be dumped in an open lot opposite the beach. Yogurt cups, food packaging and water bottles dominated the detritus, but god knows what else was in there. It was like walking through a rubbish dump.

We had promised Austin beach time in Bali, but as we all stood there, mouths gaping wide open, he slowly and quietly said to me “mama, I don’t want to play on this beach.”

To my utter disbelief, there were people fishing in the polluted surf, swimming and even surfing. What must the bellies of those fish be full of? What must be wrapping around those swimmers’ legs? What must be knocking against the surfboards as they drop into a wave? Why would they willingly put themselves out into that?

When we asked about the rubbish – whether the current state was an anomaly or the usual state of the beach, we were surprised to hear it was the latter.

As popular a vacation spot as Bali is with Australians, why had nobody ever – ever – mentioned the rubbish? People don’t just go to Bali once. It’s jokingly called Perth’s northern beaches, and the place certainly caters to Australians. They religiously go back again and again. From sports bars with AFL and Cricket, to menus full of “100% Australian Beef”, Bali knows it’s clientele, and certainly caters to it. Why had nobody ever mentioned the rubbish?

We’ve seen some pretty bad beaches in SE Asia, but this island resort was far beyond what might imagine even possible. The tendency to treat moving waterways as waste dumps throughout the region certainly contributes to the problem – if not creates it altogether. The steady flow of tourists who refuse to drink anything but bottled water and packaged foods, exacerbate it. Rubbish, sewage and greywater are all dumped into rivers that flow into the blue seas, which roll it around a bit before dumping it back on shore, starting the cycle all over again. 

And those are just the plastics that we can see.

I know that Bali is a victim of its own long-term success, but it’s clear that no investment has gone back into dealing with the deluge of waste that comes with tourism en masse. I also know that it’s a beloved holiday destination for millions of Australians every year.

So why haven’t they (Bali or its tourists) called out the problem? Why hasn’t the government educated their citizens about disposing anything and everything into the waterways? Why are there no recycling programmes actively pursued? Why do the resorts continue to provide bottles of water rather than installing purification systems? Why don’t the Australians invest some care back into their favourite holiday destination?

What does the future hold?

Turning a blind eye to the issue will only make it worse. I shudder to think what Bali will be in 10 years’ time. The volcano has already done significant damage to the tourism economy, and the money missing from this year’s high season will hurt for years to come.

We struggled to find restaurants with any other diners at all. Shopkeepers told stories about not having a single customer for an entire day. Men called out from the sidewalks, offering their personal motorbikes for transportation. Everywhere you went, you were enjoined to buy a trinket, get a massage, use transportation. The pleading in the eyes of the sellers said everything. They were dependent on the money that just wasn’t there.

I’m sure the hassling exists even when the island’s hotels aren’t at a woeful 15% occupancy rate, but I’m also sure it’s not done with the desperation that I heard in the voices of those calling out to us – knowing that their sales for days and days were only a small fraction of what it should be this time of year. Their high season is at an all time low. People have been spooked by exaggerated news reports of the volcano’s activity, and cancelled their holidays. China had banned all flights into Bali, taking out an entire tranche of highly profitable tourists who not only come to relax, eat and drink…but to also shop – and shop a lot.

Without a steady flow of tourist income, there won’t  be investment in infrastructure to tackle these problems. 

Doing what we can

We attempt to travel lightly as we go. We purify our own water, and refuse straws when possible. We use our own cutlery when offered plastic, and support local homestays, street vendors and tour guides rather than chains and corporate enterprises. We don’t buy “plastic crap” as souvenirs, and walk as much as we can. I carry a washcloth soaked in water and tea tree oil rather than carrying wipes, and we’ve learned to use the bum blaster to reduce our paper waste. We are conscious of our tourism impact on the communities we visit, and do our best to reduce the footprint we leave behind.

Admittedly, we didn’t have nice weather in Bali; we were there during a desperate time for the tourism industry, and we stayed in a resort that didn’t put much effort into their hospitality. But the appeal of Bali was still lost on me. (Sorry Aussie friends and family.)

We left Bali sad, disappointed and angry.

Perhaps one day I’ll return when she’s in better shape – when she’s not overwhelmed by forces of nature, impossible to control. But I sincerely hope that Bali, and the people who love her will put some consideration into the scars they’re leaving on this exotic beauty, and do something about it.



About the author: Shalena

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