Growing Pains in Bali, Indonesia

I wrote recently about how hard it is to stop the march of progress in a previously sedate traveler’s haunt—and the fact that you have to see it through the locals’ eyes. Our spoiled paradise is often their land of burgeoning opportunities.

Take this natural path of evolution down the road a decade or two and you end up with Bali, the #1 draw by a wide margin in Indonesia.

I’ll play the wistful backpacker character and start with, “When I visited Bali the first time, back in ’94…” and say that this used to be a very mellow, bargain-priced, slow-paced place to travel. When I returned a few years later, there were already signs that the island was being strained: more traffic, more resulting pollution, more ugly construction that didn’t fit the aesthetics of what came before.

I hadn’t seen nuthin’ apparently.


Grounds of a $4 (w/breakfast) Ubud guesthouse, circa 1994

Tourism keeps climbing in Indonesia and in this article the Jakarta Post says some 40% of those visitors are going to Bali. That island alone got 2.5 million visitors last year and the numbers keep going up by 7-10% each year. To put that in perspective, 2.5 million visitors is in the ballpark of how many people travel to the whole country in Costa Rica, Jamaica, New Zealand, or Kenya.

All these people are crammed into tourist zones on one island, not to mention all the new workers coming in from elsewhere to build the new buildings and serve the new tourists. All of them have to get from point A to point B somehow and many of them do it in cars or motorbikes—on roads built for dramatically less traffic. The infrastructure to deal with all the varieties of increased waste is inadequate to put it mildly.

It’s still a good value if you pick the right spot, but the days when cheap travelers had the place mostly to themselves ended a long time ago. By my unscientific estimate there are at least 20 resorts charging $500+ per night. Bali just got featured in Departures magazine, probably the most high-end travel publication in the U.S. unless you count Robb Report. (You have to have an Amex Platinum or Centurion card to even receive it—it’s not on newsstands.)

Even Departures got a quote in about the good/bad changes. One restaurant manager says, “When we opened the cafe Warun Bonita here seven years ago, we were surrounded by rice fields and cow pastures. Now the street is packed with new hotels, restaurants, spas, and fancy shops.”

So, would I still go there? Probably, for a few days, but then I’d high-tail it out for less crowded parts of the country. Most of the rest of Indonesia is still blissfully cheap because there are probably more luxury hotels in Bali than in the whole rest of the country combined. Apart from business travelers, there just aren’t a lot of big spenders elsewhere except for a few diving spots and tour magnet places on Sulawesi. So you’ll find far more $10-a-night places on most other islands than even $100+ ones.

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about the ups and downs of tourism growth on Bali, here are some outside articles to check out.

Is Bali Still Worth Visiting?

Bali’s Highs and Lows

Paradise or Paradise Lost?

Budget Travel in the Beach Resorts of Bali

  1. Stuart

    It’s the old mantra, you should have been here yesterday ;-)

    Sure Bali isn’t the budget travel haven it used to be — but if you’re selective in where you stay (and importantly, where you eat) you can still travel here for $15 a day, which isn’t too shabby.

    Of course you can head elsewhere and spend less, but elsewhere isn’t Bali, and despite the hordes, Bali remains a magical place.

    • tim


      Yes, and hopefully people will venture beyond the traffic and hordes of the main tourist centers to find the magic. I’m not saying it’s not a good value, despite all the moneyed crowd coming in. But a tripling in visitors in a decade or so is a dramatic change when it was already popular before. If you want to do a guest post sometime on a resident’s view of where to go there, you’ve always got a home here!

  2. Rob

    I keep telling people to come see Cambodia’s beaches. You can still make your own paradise here. I almost settled in Bali, but it was just too crowded.

  3. Lina

    There are still some nice places to discover if you can’t go back in time. Here’s a roundup of our favorite places in Bali where you can escape from the crowds a bit:

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