Can Bali Survive on Tourism Alone?

by Ines Wynn

The recent slew of natural disasters befalling Bali in the form of volcano eruptions and earthquakes brought us face to face with a situation we experienced at the time of the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 when tourism dried up faster than a shallow puddle in full tropical sun and the island shut down. The result was that many people, mainly the local inhabitants, suffered through the subsequent downturn in employment and the sudden decline of opportunities linked to tourism.

While the present situation is not quite as dire as then we still need to ask if we have learned a lesson from these disasters. If we consider the tenacious efforts on the part of government and other stakeholders in the past 15 years to revive tourism and get back to or even surpass the level of business as usual – which was grandly successful judging by current tourist arrival statistics and the never let up of the building frenzy of new hotels and related tourist infrastructure – the superficial answer would be a resounding yes. However, we need to take a broader look and admit that all these revival efforts were mainly focused on getting the tourists back. Not much was created around the possibility that new disasters, whether natural or man-made, could dish up a repeat of the horrific situation Bali endured in the aftermath of the bombings.

Now, with Mount Agung threatening to wake up from its seismic sleep and providing a very possible scenario of outburst that may shut Bali down once again and with the increased tectonic activity unleashed by the moving of the 4 continental plates that come together in the Indonesian archipelago potentially wreaking even greater havoc by causing earthquakes which, according to experts, are long overdue, we are faced with an all too realistic screen script of Bali being severely affected once again. Which entails the inevitable downturn of tourism business and its economically disastrous aftermath. Where does that leave us if these potential disasters come indeed to pass? What support system is there for the Balinese and expats alike who depend on tourism for their livelihood? What is there to take the place of income when tourism dollars no longer fall in your hands? When tourists, maybe even longterm expats living in Bali and sustaining its economy, leave in droves, not to come back for perhaps an extended time?

Has the government come up with alternative economies for Bali? Looking at all the ambitious projects in development or in the planning stage, it looks like they are mainly geared to tourism and not to the development of alternative livelihoods. Just check the list of current government projects in development: medical tourism, village tourism, retirement tourism, spiritual and yoga tourism, opening new cruise ports, MCI and other planning in that ilk. Let’s face it, all of these projects and planning are banking on crowds, which will disappear in a heartbeat if disaster strikes again.

There are always alternatives, of course. Proverbially speaking, if Moses cannot go to the mountain, the mountain could come to Moses. Bali already has a vibrant arts and crafts scene that is superbly suited to pick up some slack by expanding exports. Bali’s unique culture can be parlayed in travelling shows, music, dance and theatre troupes travelling the world to show its attractions to the denizens of many countries. Our rice culture and other agricultural endeavours could sustain many families if exports were more encouraged. There are many non-tourist focused opportunities, in particular the very promising side of Bali’s green and blue economies.

Since tourism is unarguably the biggest employer in Bali, that sector could do more to take better care of their workforce in case of a downturn. Instead of viewing the labour force as a never ending and easily replaced supply of working bodies, the employers should appreciate the skills and graces of these workers and provide better alternatives. How can they remain employed when their usual jobs are no longer in demand? Can the government come up with a better unemployment compensation scheme instead of leaving that responsibility to the employer in terms of providing hefty separation payouts?


Bali’s Green Economy – In view of a possible future collapse of tourism, there are other opportunities for Balinese to explore and develop. The emphasis should shift to diversifying the economy before the mono-economy of tourism which is a risky an economic model in Bali’s present circumstances has stopped being beneficial to society or the environment, Small projects involving heritage rice culture are encouraging farmers to grow and market mangkok heritage rice. It is sustaining and viable on a small scale and could be even more so on an expanded scale if the government would actively support heritage rice exports. To diversify the Bali economy it is imperative to conserve and sustain a working landscape and to restructure agricultural production to secure greater economic equality and wellness for farmers. Besides, rice is not the only commodity ripe for export.


Bali’s Blue Economy – Green is no longer the only new black; its other hue is blue because of the colour of the oceans and the sky. Apparently this concept that also closely meshes environmental and economic sustainability has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Indonesian government. The Blue Economy approach to business based on the principles of sustainability, nature’s efficiency, zero waste and social inclusiveness burst on the scene with the 2010 book of the same name by Gunter Pauli which, among other ideas, posits that the oceans hold the key to humanity’s future. Properly developed, managed and farmed they would provide myriad new jobs and income. In Bali, Nusa Penida and Lombok blue economy projects were started a few years ago featuring an integrated, upstream and downstream development program to cover tuna fisheries, aquaculture, marine tourism, salt and pearl industries. This blue economy with its motto of ‘borrow, use, return’ tries to make up for the deficiencies of the green economy. And since there is a lot of water in and around Indonesia, the government’s decision to pursue the blue-growth concept in marine fisheries could be quite strategic to overcome the poverty that has long existed in the coastal communities.

The question is: are these programs alive and spawning the intended benefits or have they gone unceremoniously the way of so many other well-intentioned projects that ended up in the doldrums due to lack of sustainable funding, education and local support?

Even when the green and blue economies are in a healthy and sustainable state, the question remains what to do about the people employed in the tourism sector in case of a whole scale downturn. Has anyone addressed this conundrum? If not, isn’t it high time to step up to the plate?