NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters Life!) - Construction cranes on beaches, damaged coral, and floating trash in the turquoise waters off Bali are an unfortunate sign of just how successful the Indonesian resort island has been in attracting tourists.
Foreign visitors have been drawn to the unique Hindu culture, art and volcanic landscapes of Bali since the 19th century, but in recent years growing wealth in Asia has spurred new hordes of tourists from around the region.
The island has also used its charm to become a top venue for international conferences and events involving thousands more people, many of which take place in the Nusa Dua resort complex, south of the airport, where international hotel chains such as Westin and Marriott have taken root.
The flood of cash from these conferences, during which room prices surge due to tight demand, is prompting the bulldozing of hills for more resorts in an island that some people already think is far too crowded, with little or no thought given to the limits of the environment.
“What is happening in Bali now is over-exploitation of the tourism industry. A policy of selling it cheap, and exploiting it to the last bit,” said Wayan Suardana, the head of local green group Walhi in Bali.
Suardana said old resorts should be renovated and that attention needs to be paid to a host of problems born from the surging success that include a scarcity of electricity and clean water, mounting trash, and traffic jams.
But instead, the local government has given the go-ahead to build a 200-hectare resort to host the 2013 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Jimbaran, a hilly area overlooking a beautiful bay, threatening farmers’ livelihood, Suardana said.
In the Nusa Dua area, the small, winding road is misted by dust from construction on developments in at least three adjacent areas and streams of trucks carrying rocks and cement.
Wayan Solo, the administrative head of Benoa — where Nusa Dua is located — said two resorts and a villa complex are being built just south of Nusa Dua, with completion set for next year.
Mass-market tourism, which arrived in Bali several decades ago, proved invaluable for the tiny, densely populated island, half the size of Jamaica but with a population of 3.5 million.
With not enough fertile land to go around, tourism provided jobs in hotels, services, manufacturing of things such as souvenirs and furniture, and construction.
Despite some downturns during the political turmoil of the late 1990s and after incidents such as 9/11 attacks in the United States, the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, and the 2008 financial crisis, tourism is rebounding more strongly than ever.
Some 2.4 million people flew in to Bali in 2009, nearly double the 2005 figure. According to government statistics, the number of arrivals at Bali’s airport for the first half of this year is up 10 percent compared to the same period last year.
With its magnificent aquamarine water, white sand beaches, majestic cliffs, and numerous hotels, arid southern Bali has been Indonesia’s main tourist magnet for decades.
But the hundreds of hotels have absorbed water in the small island of 3.5 million residents, said Suardana, leaving farmers in the northern part of Bali, which has working plantations of crops such as rice and coffee, chronically short of water.
Still more land is taken out of agricultural commission all the time. Bali’s Environmental Agency said 700 hectares of land is converted yearly for hotels, roads and housing, some of it villas for foreigners and wealthy Indonesians.
In addition, the hotels produce growing mountains of trash. Some 13,000 cubic meters of trash arriving at processing plants across Bali per day, but only half is being processed, said Alit Sastrawan, head of the agency.
Lack of monitoring has also meant that trash from big hotels may be dumped on just any available empty land, said Made Suarnata, the head of the Wisnu Foundation, which campaigns for community-based waste recycling.
Perhaps even more serious is damage to one of the island’s biggest draws, its pristine waters.
Decades of development in southern Bali have contributed to coral bleaching and beach erosion, adding to damage from an El Nino weather pattern in the late 1990s.
“What used to be a huge reef in Sanur, the natural barrier of Bali, was covered by sedimentation, the result of massive development and reclamation in southern Bali, bleaching and eventually killing the coral,” said Ketut Sarjana Putra, a scientist at Bali-based Conservation International Indonesia.
While Sanur’s reef is beyond hope, coral is recovering in northwestern Pemuteran and the neighboring island of Nusa Penida. But something has still been lost, with long-term divers saying fish numbers are sharply lower.
Thinking of the environmental degradation, Suarnata recalled an old Balinese saying, “Merta matemahang Wishya” — “a blessing that is not managed well can turn to danger.”
He added: “The tourism industry has given us good benefits, but if we aren’t serious about managing it, with trash piling up across the island and inviting disease, who would want to come?”
Editing by Elaine Lies