Continuing impacts of tourism in Bali

Rice terraces at Tegallalang, Bali. From:

Bali’s traditional base was agrarian. Massive investment has gone into the development of irrigation systems in Bali over the last 1,200 years or so. In the last 35 years this system has come under increasing pressure as Bali has been transformed into a mass global tourism destination.

Agrarian Bali’s small compact self-sufficient villages surrounded by rice fields, resulted in a distinct settlement pattern. Here neighbours worked and planned together, generating an abundant village life, richly infused with artistic expression as an ongoing offering to the gods. This integration of culture and landscape has had a magnetic impact on cultural and recreational tourists the world over. Sadly Bali’s iconic status is increasingly threatened, yet Bali’s response is constrained by traditional cultural patterns and processes.

Although writing of an early colonial Java Van Akkeren’s understanding of the culturally infused landscape remained broadly true of the Balinese people well into the 20th century and while, increasingly under siege, can still be found.

“Wet-rice cultivation encourages very much all activities directed at restraining the wild forces of nature; it stimulates the population to achieve a high degree of mutual co-operation and aid; peace must be maintained with neighbouring villages. Technical ability, organizational skill, special care for the preservation of social peace and the harmonious development of the community and other social virtues have in the course of two or three thousand years formed the special character of the Javanese people…” (1)

Tourism and globalization: Bali’s culture system
In Java it was the Dutch ‘cultivation system’, also called the ‘culture system’ that caused the demise of this pattern of settlement and organisation through the 19th century. Java lost much because of the Dutch ‘Culture System’, enforced by the Dutch colonial government between 1830 and 1970. Under this system, Indonesian farmers were forced to put aside part of their land and labour for growing cash crops such as sugar, coffee, indigo, tobacco and pepper, so that they could pay their land tax to the Dutch.” Bali resisted Dutch colonialism until the early 20th century and was never subject to the ‘Culture System’, rather it was considered a culturally unique expression of Austronesian and Indic influences.

In Bali some 1,200 water collectives, or subak, consisting of between 50 and 400 farmers each, managed the water supply from each of the different source of water. Farmers grew traditional Balinese rice using natural fertilizers and without the aid of pesticides. They were highly organized with each distinct catchment relating to a major water temple where priests divined the appropriate times to begin planting and irrigating. Landscapes overall are seen to have sacred connotations. This feature of Bali, so well expressed in the holistic doctrine of Tri Hita Karana (2), had great appeal to western and north American tourists when they first began making journeys of cultural discovery to the island in the 1930s.

Understanding the unique Balinese landscape
Gaining a sense of the uniquely Balinese system of occupance can be aided by reflecting on the whole process of irrigating, planting and harvesting rice. Such a process, requiring careful engineering and planning of hydraulics irrigated rice cultivation, has necessitated co-operation and provided the foundation for a style of village life in which there has been little room for individualism. Reinforcing this pattern, Balinese Hinduism is characterised by Bahkti, the cyclical devotional practice of worship. Each ceremony is expressed, not only through prayer and mantras but also through distinctive sets of material offerings. Succesful completion of ceremonies, essential to ensure the well-being of both material and spiritual life, necessitates consonance with the traditional devotional practices. Involution is permissible but departure from the formal practices is unacceptable and out of accord with traditions. Conformity and repetition are essential themes in this form of devotion.

Today in Bali tourism and the current expressions of forces of globalisation are transforming the Balinese economy and society with a new entrepreneurial ethos that challenges the practice of cooperation so long nurtured within the tradition of irrigated rice cultivation. This in turn is influencing attitudes to work and social organisation in ways that, while contemporary, also express old doctrines like ‘desa, kala, patra’, or adapting to the new yet containing innovation and ensuring that it’s adopted in ways that mark it with a uniquely Balinese character.

The challenge and containment of entrepreneurial ethics


Entrepreneurial ethics, on the other hand, encourage initiative, individualism and the accumulation of profit. Tourism exercises a demand for productive resources, fulled by cashed up visitors and this tends to draw people away from the more traditional means of expressing cooperation towards paid work in the patchwork of activities required to support and grow the tourism industry. Yet this process is etched with the underlying values of uniformity, repetition and consistency. A result is innovations in the provision of tourist services are quickly copied and propagated, transforming the innovation and in a sense involuting. There is reproduction, a xeroxing, of the activity first just several iterations, then there is a take-off point resulting in it appearing throughout the entire district.

Spas and massage services are one particular example, as are espresso coffee outlets and the recent spread of 27/7 mini-marts. Earlier iterations include the huge number of outlets selling paintings, or wood carvings or fabrics.

Development in general also has an impact. As material wealth rises in Bali, fuelled by the globalising foreign cash fuelled development, so the demand for new housing also rises. The economics of large-scale production now come into play and the housing estate emerges as a rational market driven response to the clamour for higher standards of accommodation.

New housing in Bali, from Bali Post (27/9/2012)
New housing in Bali, from Bali Post (27/9/2012)

Recently the Bali Post carried an article expressing some concern over the increasing alienation of subak lands.

Semua orang kagum akan keberadaan subak di Bali. Karena perannya yang strategis dalam menjaga keberlangsungan pertanian, banyak pihak yang menilai subak adalah garda dalam melestarikan budaya dan lingkungan di Bali. Namun dibalik ”gemerlap” tersebut, ternyata subak di Bali semakin merana. Banyak lahan subak telah berubah fungsi menjadi hotel, restoran dan perumahan. Bahkan kini pemerintah tak memiliki ”data base” yang pasti tentang luasnya subak di Bali.

The essential message in the article being that there is no accurate data base chronicling the impact of development on the subak system as evidenced by the increasing use of rice lands for hotels, restaurants and housing.

If the subak system is central to the maintenance of the uniquely Balinese landscape,it follows that loss of rice lands has implications across the entire delicate web of devotional activities, village society, the arts, agriculture, indeed the entire geo-spiritual expression that has been Bali.

UNESCO Recognition
The Balinese subak system and associated rice fields in the Tabanan area with the subak temple Pura Taman Ayun and the rice fields of the spectacular sawah of the Jatiluwih area were recognised in 2012 by UNESCO and included in the World Heritage List.

Concerns continue about maintaining this heritage throughout the entire island of Bali are becoming more prominent. Recently I Ketut Sarjana Putra, executive director of CI (Conservation International Indonesia) said that Bali was now experiencing “serious environmental problems, including issues related to trash, land, coastal degradation, water and food shortages, and uncontrolled development programs, as well as a swelling population.” he went on to say ,“There are no real actions to identify the real need for conservation funding to save Bali’s nature and culture.”

One solution being suggested could be based on the Galapagos Islands model. “Anybody visiting the island must pay US$100 as an entrance fee upon landing there. Visitors must also pay a $48 footprint fee upon entering the Galapagos National Park.”

For a full account see the Jakarta Post of July 10, 2013. Food for thought.


(1) Akkeren, P Van – Sri and Christ. A study of the indigenous church in east Java. London. 1970. pp.5.

(2) Tri Hita Karana explains successful occupance of the land as a process requiring balance and harmony in relations between humans, between humans and nature and between humans and God. It brings together the realms of the spirit, society and nature. In this doctrine Human dependence on the life-sustaining forces of the natural world is made plain.

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