Natalie B. Compton and Gabe Hiatt – Shannon Smith had been to Bali before, but it was her first trip back since the pandemic. This time, the Cairns, Australia, resident had come to Indonesia's "Island of the Gods" for a work conference in Nusa Dua, a resort hub at Bali's southern tip.
While bouncing between Nusa Dua and popular tourist areas such as Kuta and Seminyak, Smith, who works in hotel management, noticed a few changes. There was more traffic on the roads, fewer visitors from Asia and more Russians.
But the Balinese people were as welcoming as ever, and the place was still rife with rowdy tourists. "If I wanted to hang out with drunken Australians, I'd stay at home," Smith said.
The image many outsiders have of Bali – the one depicted in the 2010 Julia Roberts blockbuster "Eat Pray Love" – still exists. Bali remains covered with deep green rice paddies and golden sand stretching into turquoise water. Warm locals still banter with beach bar-loving foreigners. But it's not as tranquil these days.
In a little over a year since Bali reopened for international travel, an uptick in unruly behavior from tourists has removed some of the magic from paradise, pushing national and local officials to think up new ways to address offenders.
Reckless driving, social media flashing
From the country's capital city, a top minister recently advocated for a tax on foreign tourists entering Indonesia to discourage "low-income" visitors. The Bali Tourism Board is promoting an ad campaign asking travelers to behave more respectfully. The local government has recently proposed banning visitors from renting motorbikes to curb reckless driving, CNN reported. And the Indonesian immigration department has been busy deporting foreigners who have been working illegally on tourist visas or breaking local laws.
Bali Governor Wayan Koster said in a news briefing he has proposed revoking the visa-on-arrival program for travelers from Russia and Ukraine, who have been arriving in bigger numbers since the two countries have been at war, although plenty of people of other nationalities have been involved in recent incidents.
Immigration officials announced last week they deported a Russian man who posted a widely circulated photo to social media that showed him with his pants around his ankles atop Mount Agung, a sacred site for Hindus. Another Russian man was deported in late February for working as a photographer in violation of his residence permit.
Tourism statistics recorded by Bali province show 22,104 Russian visitors came this January, a total second only to Australia, which had 91,254 citizens arrive in the island getaway. From November 2022 to January 2023, Russian tourists accounted for 5.6 percent of Bali's nearly 997,000 foreign visitors, slightly larger than the 4.8 percent share of visitors from Russia in January 2020.
Reports in foreign media have also covered the traffic accidents and reckless driving, fights with local authorities and immigration violations, topless driving and indecent exposure. There was the foreigner working illegally on a tourist visa to teach Balinese dance and meditation, and the group of foreigners who filed a complaint against crowing roosters in a local neighborhood.
The latter incident baffled Bali native Megah Bintaranny, a product manager for Rainforest Cruises' Southeast Asia market. "How do you complain about that? We cannot control chickens," Bintaranny said.
If the foreigners had been staying at a luxury hotel in a tourist hot spot, that would be one thing. But they were staying in a guesthouse in a residential area where the noises of rural life abound, roosters and all. "When you choose to live in a local area," Bintaranny added, "you need to accept [local noises]."
Overtourism on 'party island'
Bali is part of a growing number of popular travel destinations fed up with overtourism. Hawaii is considering a bill to dissolve its government-sponsored tourism marketing agency. Amsterdam has been trying to reduce rowdy tourist behavior in its Red Light District, rolling out a ban on pot-smoking on the streets there, reducing hours for restaurants and brothels, and tightening some alcohol restrictions. Italian authorities have been fining tourists in Rome, Florence and Venice for littering, camping, vandalism and traffic violations.
Like Hawaii, Amsterdam and Italy, Bali is also fed up with tourists who aren't breaking any laws, but show little respect for local life.
"We have a lot of tolerance here ... but it's this behavior of 'I am the more important person. Look at me,'" said Fatmawati, an Indonesian personal assistant and freelance photographer who moved to Bali from the island of Java nine years ago. (Fatmawati uses only one name, which is common in Indonesia.) "It's disgusting – people are tired of it. I'm tired of it."
Tjok Bagus Pemayun, the head of the Bali government tourism office, told The Washington Post in a written statement that Balinese culture is a source of happiness for locals, so "of course they would be angry" to see foreigners disrespect it: "Destroying their culture means destroying their life."
When Ravindra Singh Shekhawat, Intrepid Travel's general manager for Bali operations, moved to Bali in February 2022, "the roads were empty, hotels were empty," he said. Tourism has increased significantly since then. Intrepid's bookings in Indonesia have recovered to 2019 levels, and in Bali, "it's definitely very busy," he said. "There are tourists everywhere."
He blames some of the recent issues on ignorance. "To a lot of people, Bali is considered more like a party island," Shekhawat said. "That could be one of the reasons that people are not very aware about how traditional local people are."
Being an expat himself, Shekhawat feels disappointed seeing cases like the foreigner who went viral after "having a heated argument" with local people over a traffic detour due to a religious procession – a common occurrence in Bali.
"As an outsider, you may have your opinion, but local people's opinion should matter as well," Shekhawat said. "It's their land, it's their island, and they should be allowed to follow their culture and tradition as they want to."
Justin Smith, owner of the luxury travel-planning company the Evolved Traveler, acknowledges Bali has been known for decades as a "bohemian destination" where foreigners were welcome to behave and dress as they like. He believes it's often lost on visitors that Bali has expectations for respect and modest dress.
"It was acceptable to a point, but it has now gone too far," Smith said. "There's an absolute lack of respect for the destination and for Bali to be pushed to that extent, that means this bad behavior is pretty extensive."
Calling out illegal workers on Instagram
Bintaranny thinks shocking behavior is becoming more frequent because of social media. People seem to be pushing boundaries for internet fame, seeing sacred sites as "sexy for their Instagram," she said. "And for them, it is probably not a big thing, but for Balinese ... it's just an insult."
While social media may amplify each example of misbehavior, Shekhawat believes the majority of visitors aren't disruptive. Febria Diah Retnoningsih, a counselor of social, cultural and information affairs at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, agreed that the "bad behavior is just one drop in the ocean."
But the government doesn't endorse visa abuse or dangerous driving. "It's the same as other countries," Shekhawat said. "You cannot work without a work visa, and there are strict regulations to operate a vehicle."
Pemayun says it's important to curb bad behavior, even though the number of offenders is small, to avoid having the issue "spread to other tourists" and "damage the image of Bali tourism in the world."
Bali has a program to welcome remote workers, but the so-called "second-home visa" comes with a number of requirements, including proof of the equivalent of nearly $129,000 in savings. The current frustration isn't directed at such residents, but foreign workers competing with locals for jobs. There are various Instagram accounts that document examples; the one that Fatmawati says creates the biggest stir among locals anonymously reposts content from foreigners advertising their services, presumably without the proper visa.
Under the satirical guise of supporting local small business, the (currently suspended) account @moscow_cabang_bali and its backup account share public ads (mostly from Russians, hence the name) selling swim lessons, hair cuts, surf instruction, tattoos, yoga classes and villa rentals. In its profile description, there's a link to a website where people can report labor law issues with the Indonesian government.
"They're bragging about it," Fatmawati said of the ads. "What is really crazy is that they're taking jobs like nannies, renting motor bikes. Can you imagine taking jobs from locals? Nannies?"
Asking for respect
Even in the current climate, Fatmawati says tourists to Bali won't encounter any angst from locals or authorities if they don't break basic rules, and Pemayun said "Balinese people feel very happy" with the return of tourism.
Shekhawat says that's been the case for Intrepid Travel's group tours. Locals seem to welcome the tourists, Shekhawat said, and are understanding that sometimes travelers "may not behave 100 percent as they want them to – but there is a limit to everything."
To be a better visitor on Bali, Pemayun encourages travelers to "respect cultural values, traditions and local wisdom." He would like visitors to behave in an orderly manner, be environmentally friendly, stay longer, spend money on local businesses and make repeat visits.
Shekhawat also recommends reading up on cultural norms before your trip, and exploring less-visited areas of Bali than the most popular spots like Seminyak, Ubud, Canggu and Uluwatu. That may entail heading to the northern and western parts of the island, like West Bali National Park, a wildlife oasis with 160 recorded species of birds. You could also take a ferry to nearby Gili and Lombok islands, where you'll find more sun, sand and surf – and fewer tourists.
Wherever you go, "please respect our culture," Retnoningsih said. "That's what makes Bali, Bali – its rich culture."