Trouble in paradise: Reflections on overtourism from Bali

Allison Jane Smith
Nov 1, 2018 · 4 min read
Tourists shield themselves against the rain in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Javi Sánchez de la viña

I’m writing this in Ubud, at a gorgeous vegetarian/vegan café where I’m pretty sure the woman next to me is meditating. This is an excellent depiction of what Ubud is like.

The gorgeous cafe. Bamboo, goldfish pond and meditating woman not pictured.

I came here for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), which recently wrapped up. It was four enriching days of panel discussions and readings with more than 200 speakers, including poets, journalists, novelists, memoirists and diplomats. My brain is still sluggish from the strain of taking in so many ideas and so much art.

This year was the fifteenth anniversary of the UWRF. After the 2002 Bali bombings, the festival was conceived as a solution to the problem of plummeting tourism. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn this; everything in Bali revolves around tourism. It is constantly yo-yoing between too many tourists and not enough. Last year, Mount Agung erupted, sending the tourism industry ‘gasping for air.’ Yet it’s that same tourism industry that makes Bali’s environment ‘out of balance.’

And that’s why, as stimulating as the festival was, I feel a bit guilty for attending it. I’ve written about overtourism, and Bali and Venice are the two best examples of the problem. Bali is in the midst of a water crisis, for which tourism is no balm. The number of tourists in Ubud, the island’s spiritual capital, is stunning. I’ve never seen so much shopping in such a small city.

Others at the festival shared some of my misgivings. Saras Dewi, an Indonesian academic and activist, called out Bali’s unsustainable tourism levels in the very first session on the very first day. Will Buckingham, an English writer, spoke about how his time in the Tanimbar Islands in eastern Indonesia led him to consider anthropology and travel writing to be ‘inherently problematic.’

Travel ethics emerged in other sessions that had nothing to do with Indonesia. Barbara Demick, the author of a book about North Korea, was asked about the ethics of visiting the country. She said believed tourism was good for North Koreans, as the presence of tourists eroded the regime’s propaganda about the outside world, though she noted that tourism dollars go to the regime.

I was tragically unable to attend a workshop on writing and ethics though I was happy to see such a workshop on the program. We need to have more conversations about writing, ethics and travel, and the relationship between the three (travel writers I’m looking at you).

No arts festival would be complete without a few writers revealing themselves to be out of touch, and this one was no different. One writer trotted out the tired line about writing being one of the most difficult professions, and another (male) writer asserted the importance of imagination in one breath and then admitted his inability to write female characters in the next.

Fortunately, there were beautiful moments, too: Janet Steele offered fascinating insights about Islamic journalism in Malaysia and Indonesia; Indonesian writers reflected on writing about taboo subjects in their country; Ghayath Almadhoun, a Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish poet, eloquently described why exile is essential to great literature.

Though the festival’s theme was Jagadhita, the Balinese Hindu philosophy of pursuing universal harmony, many writers discussed disharmony and the nature of bringing up difficult topics. Memoirists discussed how and why they wrote about their families’ skeletons. Indonesian poets and writers talked about how they challenged ideas about religion, sexuality and gender roles in their country. Diplomats and lawyers talked about how to effectively challenge governments who are abusing human rights.

During the festival, I became more convinced that we need to have difficult conversations about the environmental, cultural and economic costs of travel. I’m happy these conversations are bubbling to the surface in forums like UWRF, but we need to turn up the heat to bring them to a boil.

Allison Jane Smith

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Freelance writer. Traveler. Scrabble player.