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Bali is trying to crack down on bad tourists. Will it help?

Washington Post - July 19, 2023

Natalie B. Compton – Niluh Djelantik has been on vacation abroad, but the Balinese influencer is still getting texts from frustrated friends, family and fans back at home.

Djelantik has grown a huge social media presence by mediating conflicts between visitors and locals on the island, pro bono. She gets a deluge of messages asking for help whenever a tourist goes off the rails in Bali; recent examples of boorish behavior from foreigners on the Indonesian island include a Danish woman exposing herself from the back of a motorbike, an American man who bashed a police car and an Australian man who spat on someone at a mosque.

"It never ends," Djelantik said.

But she welcomes the news, even while she's away. If she's up to date, "I can do what I can to make the situation better," she said. If she's traveling, that could be reposting bad behavior to spread awareness, or sharing information with law enforcement or immigration officials. When she's at home, she helps in person by facilitating meetings and apologies between offending foreigners and locals.

The Balinese government is aware of the ongoing frustration on the island and has promised to do more to change its reputation as a cheap party destination and rein in rule-breaking. As of June, Bloomberg reported, Bali has deported 136 misbehaving foreigners this year for issues including indecent exposure, rowdy behavior and disobeying local laws, among others.

And in July, Bali governor Wayan Koster announced a $10 tourist tax that will go into effect mid-2024. The one-time fee will apply to foreign visitors only and be paid electronically. The tax isn't expected to reduce bad behavior, but rather, Koster said, support infrastructure and environmental projects, the Bangkok Post reported.

It's also experimenting with new schemes to reduce disruptive behavior from travelers and safeguard local Hindu customs. That includes distributing a list of dos and don'ts to travelers, and announcing a so-called mountain ban that has yet to be enforced.

Sacred mountains attract tourist stunts

Bali's volcanic mountains are considered sacred to Balinese people, and among the island's most popular tourist attractions. But they've been backdrops for recent stunts, like a foreigner who posted a bottomless photo of himself and was later deported.

During a press briefing on May 31, the governor proposed a ban of activities (with the exception of religious ceremonies) on its 22 mountains, said Febria Diah Retnoningsih, a counselor of social, cultural and information affairs at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington.

Two months since the announcement, however, "it is not clear if this regulation has been implemented yet," Retnoningsih said in an email.

For now, people are still visiting the mountains, and posting about their hikes on social media, despite the fact that during his announcement, the governor said the ban was "immediate and forever," said a reporter from the Bali Sun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

"It's just that the legislation hasn't been put through," the reporter continued. "So nobody's breaking the law, but nobody's obeying by the new rules, either."

The last time Ravindra Singh Shekhawat, general manager for Intrepid Travel's Bali operations, went to the top of Mount Batur, there were more than 500 visitors and every group had a guide. At the base and close by, locals earn a living selling their goods and running restaurants and hotels. If implemented officially, the ban would impact that entire network, Shekhawat said.

Djelantik is not a supporter of the ban on mountain tourism, feeling that a blanket ban would punish visitors who do follow the rules as well as the local community Shekhawat mentioned. Instead, she'd rather see the government enforce existing rules and punish bad actors accordingly.

"If you had a big rat in your house ... you don't burn down the house," Djelantik said.

No climbing the holy trees, please

In an attempt to educate foreigners, the government handed out cards to tourists arriving at the airport that explain local etiquette in June, the Jakarta Globe reported, and now exist as QR codes travelers can scan.

The don'ts include eight items, such as: avoiding climbing sacred trees, littering, working or trading illegally, using non-recyclable plastics, taking pictures in "unproper" clothing around sacred places and entering main areas of sacred spaces unless to pray and wearing traditional Balinese clothing (although it's not allowed for anyone on their period). "All offenses are subject to law or deportation," the card concludes.

Lael Kassis, vice president of market innovation and development for EF Go Ahead Tours who is launching a Bali itinerary in 2024, said the more informed a traveler is when visiting a new destination, the better, and supports the new cards.

"What Bali is doing is really leaning in to technology to give travelers access to this information – make it easy and transparent," he said. "The more information travelers have, I think that's a good thing."

Djelantik agrees it's important to learn Balinese laws and etiquette. She also encourages visitors to consider the rules of their home country, too. If it's illegal to strip naked for a photo shoot where you're from, chances are it's illegal where you're on vacation or living as a digital nomad.

The spirit of the cards may be noble, but some are skeptical they'll impact their target audience. A reporter from the Bali Sun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said the solution seemed like a rushed approach to address public concern. Tourists most likely to cause problems aren't the kind to read dry educational materials or scan the QR codes, they said.

Wayan Wardika, a sustainability activist and founder of the campground Tegal Dukuh Camp, says more site management could help the issues, like better signage at temples and holy sites, or requirements to go with guides. It needs to be more clear that temples are built not for decoration, but for the community.

"I think what makes Bali stand out is because we live and preserve this cultural heritage of all these holy sites, and lots of tourists take it for granted," Wardika said. "I didn't say all – I would say most of the guests and most of the tourists have a high respect for what we are doing."

Locals pay for cleanup

When outlier tourists strike, particularly at Balinese holy sites, there's a ripple effect. The community has to take part in a cleansing ceremony to restore harmony.

"It's a lot of work for local people to maintain the sanctity of the place after these sort of things," Shekhawat said.

The cost of such ceremonies depends on the severity of the incident. "In Bali we have three levels of ceremony," Wardika said. Where an incident falls, Wardika says, is decided by village leaders and residents.

Djelantik arranged a ceremony after the tourist went bottomless on Mount Agung that she says cost about $350. In more extreme cases, like when a German woman walked through a temple naked during a sacred performance in May, a cleansing ceremony could cost more than $1,000, Wardika says.

When a foreigner breaks the rules, the damage is often twofold. Not only have they disrespected the local community, "they don't want to pay the price," Wardika said. "We have to pay."

Djelantik, the social media fixer, worries some new efforts like the tourist tax will anger visitors or make them feel unwelcome in Bali. But she says the pushback has nothing to do with tourism on the whole.

"This is not because we hate foreigners or because we are not grateful for having them. ... In fact, it's completely the opposite," Djelantik said.

"We are truly grateful. We love them," she continued. "But at the same time, we also, as human beings ... we have the full right to stand up for our hometown."

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2023/07/19/bali-tourism-tax-mountain-ban