A different look at Bali

This year I have spent a good 3 months doing research in the waters around Bali. I worked and lived in Bali 6 years ago and it has been great to be back, even if a lot has changed since I left.

Depending on who you’d ask, Bali brings very different images to mind. For many Europeans it’s a far away tropical dream destination. For Australians it’s a surf or party destination and for many other people it is the ideal island to do yoga and revitalise (whatever that might mean). Travel agents and tour companies love to cash in on this image of an unspoiled paradise with the loveliest people you can find.

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Sunrise in Amed (north-east Bali)

Lately Bali has also being getting an increasingly negative connotation. To some people it is just a place where Australians or backpackers go to get drunk and make absolute fools of themselves. It’s a place where tourism is tipping the scales from a paradise island to a congested, resort filled, money driven place for people who don’t care about the local culture. In this version of Bali, there is no more romantic notion of an idyllic paradise, quite the opposite.

As always, there is some truth to both sides of the story. Tourism has increased massively, it’s estimated that nearly 4 million people will visit Bali in 2015 (compared to just over 2 million in 2009). Traffic has increased, new roads have been built, countless new resort sprung up and big buses now drive around hordes of tourists to uninspired commercialised tours. It used to be normal cars or motorbikes taking out a fraction of the people to admire Bali’s unique culture. I am not claiming there was no tourism here 6 years ago, but the intensity with which it has increased is staggering.

I must admit that I struggle with this increase in tourism, I loved living here years ago, loved the people, the diving, the culture, the food, the diving,… Some of that has changed or is gone, which is unfortunate. It is especially difficult as I do believe tourism can be a sustainable alternative to more exploitative use of the environment. The question is how to find the right balance. It is easy for us as visitors to regret the loss of small island charm and the increase of pollution that comes with mass tourism. But who could deny the right of local communities to hop on the tourism bandwagon and make a better living for themselves and their families?

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Rice fields in the centre of Bali

What I can say, is that there is still a lot of beauty out there. Head away from the busy south and explore the interior or head to the less explored northern coast. The northeast is stunningly beautiful, even if there might be more tourists around than there used to be. I still feel extremely lucky for being able to do research here and very frequently still just stop for a while to take in the beauty of it all, whether it’s on land or under water.

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Getting ready to explore a new site

While dive tourism in Bali has also increased a lot, there are still many untouched places left to explore. Sure, it’s great to dive with manta rays or marvel at Mola molas, and the USAT Liberty still is a great wreck dive, but there is so much more. I might be biased as my research looks at small critters in the sand, but I just can’t contain my excitement when I survey a new site and find it has lots amazing critters like seahorses, ghostpipefish and a range of cephalopods. Next time you dive Bali, try to find a way to explore those sites that are dived less and enjoy the feeling of being away from the crowds and the excitement of finding new critters. Oh, and be kind enough to let me know if you find an amazing new muck site!