Negative tourism in Bali

When Tourism Goes Terribly Wrong

Derek Indonesia, Perspectives 273 Comments

(Note: I was planning to spend some time in Thailand over the next two months but my plans have suddenly changed for a few reasons that I won’t go into now. After making a quick stop in Bali, I’m now actually headed back to the US. More to come about this change soon.)

Warning: This post contains strong and potentially offensive language.

Negative tourism in BaliAppalling.

Appalling. Appalling. Appalling.

Never before in my life have I come across such a disgraceful scene of tourism gone wrong as what I encountered during my stay in the Kuta area of Bali this past week.

From the moment I arrived, I suspected that the Bali I had envisioned for so many years was not exactly the reality. Picture this: Drunken foreigners everywhere stumbling around half-naked while tossing trash on the ground and screaming out profanities to everyone they passed on the street. This is pretty much what I observed non-stop while staring out the taxi window during the 20 minute drive from the airport into Kuta. Combine this with a never-ending collection of western fast-food chains and clothing shops as well as tourist bars offering $1 tequila shots, and the beautiful, fantasy destination that is supposedly Bali was nowhere to be found.

And while I have nothing against tourism, or even the intense form of it that you find in many parts of the world, I have a problem with Kuta. To see the Balinese people, who are such friendly, gentle people by nature, become so corrupted by the influx of selfish, disrespectful tourists proved more than disturbing to me.

I can’t even describe what it was like to watch these kind, constantly smiling people be reduced to street vendors selling t-shirts that state “Do It Up the Bum, Avoid Kids” and “F**k You Bitch” and bumper stickers that read, “Mark is Gay”, “You’re a Homo” and “You’re Fat But I’ll F**k You Anyway”. This embarrassing byproduct of tourism was present everywhere I turned. Even the housekeeper in the hotel I stayed at pushed around a cart full of cleaning products that had a big sticker on it that read, “I Shit Fat People”.

And she had no idea what that even means, just as the t-shirt vendors had no idea what they were truly saying when they yelled out “Suck It Or Leave t-shirt for you, cheap price!” to every tourist that walked by. That’s the problem when tourism goes so terribly wrong. The local people are sometimes unknowingly forced to stoop down to the shockingly infantile level of a breed of tourists who should never be allowed to leave their home countries.

I firmly believe that the locals are not to blame at all. I blame each and every one of the oblivious tourists who show not an ounce of respect for Kuta, for Bali, for Indonesia or for any of the people they come into contact with. I have never seen such full-on disrespectful tourism in all of my years on the road, with such a concentration of people in one area who thought it perfectly acceptable to turn a foreign island into their own personal booze, drugs and sex playground.

And this leaves the local Balinese with no choice. If they want to earn some money to feed their children, their only option is to accept the nonsense and fill their shops with the “Damn Those Bitches Are Fine” t-shirts that the naked, constantly cursing tourists demand. After all, the locals wouldn’t be selling this crap if people weren’t buying it. The fact is, few visitors to Kuta are interested in buying traditional Balinese wood carvings. Actually, visitors seemed to be incredibly interested in buying wood carvings of penises instead (which were for sale in almost every shop). So you can’t blame a local for selling those penises in order to put food on the table.

Some might argue that similar transformations have taken place in other parts of the world such as Khao San Road in Bangkok or Cancun, Mexico. But I beg to differ. Having spent a good amount of time in both of these other locations, I find that, despite the heavy tourism, the corruption of the local people and way of life has been held in check in comparison to Kuta. Khao San Road, as unappealing as it may be to some travelers, retains a bit of Thai charm which seems to force western culture to adapt to Thai culture, not the other way around.

And as for Cancun, it is definitely an Americanized city, but it is also one that is quite pleasant to visit and if I may say, is full of tourists that show much more respect than what I found in Bali. And maybe I’ve just missed it but I have never seen anyone selling t-shirts and stickers that say “Want More Grunt, F**k Like A Pig” in Cancun.

The point is, while in Kuta, I felt absolutely ashamed to be a traveler. Ashamed is not even strong enough a word to describe what went through my head as I watched inebriated tourists bark out their demands for yet another bottle of Bintang beer while engaging in lewd conduct that simply has no place at all on Bali. Of course, each time, the young local waitress would simply take the order and smile, unable to react in any other way, even in the face of such blatant disrespect.

I know I’m not the only traveler to feel so strongly about this. In fact, my good friend Jodi from summed it up quite well when she wrote to me that during her time in Kuta, all she wanted to do was walk around with a big sign that said ‘cover your tits’ while tapping a few people on the shoulder and saying “I mean – you’re in the AIRPORT in a bikini…how is that ok?! (It’s not).

To me, so much of what I saw in Kuta is not ok.


One important thing I need to mention is that this was a rant only about the Kuta area of Bali. During the time I spent away from Kuta, exploring the temples, volcanoes, lakes and other regions of this island, I did in fact discover the Bali that I originally hoped to find. The rest of Bali really is a treasure of a destination, one that maintains its local culture and in turn, offers interested travelers a very real glimpse into the Balinese way of life.

Balinese Temple

But as for Kuta, never again. And as a result of this visit, I will forever be even more conscious about how I act and how I present myself when interacting with a foreign culture. I certainly challenge you to do the same as well.

Have you been to Kuta? Any thoughts to share?

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Comments 273

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  3. Amber

    We (my 13yr old son) and I are looking at our first trip to Bali in Jan 17. Thanks for your write up it has helped me make the decision to spend longer in Ubud (and dive sights) rather than the Kuta area. Having travelled all over SE Asia (as well as other international destinations) the last thing we want is obnoxious and drunk Australians everywhere we turn – (and we are Australian)!!!

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  6. Josh

    My wife and 18 month old son just returned from a week in Bali and had a fantastic time. The one main difference is we stayed FAR away from Kuta as we were instructed by my colleagues in Singapore. We stayed at a quiet beach villa in Gianyar (about 1 hour northeast of the airport). We had a great day tour of some local spots in Ubud and spent most of the time relaxing and listening to waves in this local fishing village. The staff at the villa was excellent and all the locals we encountered in Ubud were very pleasant. We have been to Cancun, Costa Rica and Jamaica as well and they all have different levels of tourism negatives. However, we found the influence in this part of the island was very minimal. I’m glad I found your blog because it further verified the decision to stay away from Kuta especially with a wife and small child. This is not a sales pitch for the villa where we stayed, so I’ll keep that private. However, please message me if you would like specifics. Cheers!

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  8. Jan

    I am currently travelling across Indonesia and just spent about 8 days in Bali (just 1 day in Kuta). I disagree that the Balinese are such “gentle, friendly, welcoming, smiling people”. Greedy, greedy, greedy, moraly corrupt to such as digree as I have rarely witnessed anywhere else. Google about Mt. Batur mafia, police corruption etc. I was not impressed by their cullture at all. They have the tourist price and the local price, they charge you for breathing their air. Never going there back again.

  9. Andrew

    I agree with what you say but it is a 2 way street Many of the Balinese are very very greedy people and will do anything they can to Make a buck out of tourists. The fact is they don’t care as long as they are making the money And its not some poor Balinese person who owns that shop they are very rich people and they pay their staff peanuts to run those shops. Whilst i don’t agree with selling this awful stuff its definitely come from westerners but its the Locals who know exactly what it means and they are raking in the bucks. At the end of the day Its the Balinese responsibility to stop selling this profanity and also their responsibility to clean up Kuta. But they are raking in the bucks and they don’t have a long term business vision its all about today and what we can make today. I live here and have done so since 2002 and just watch it get worse and worse.

  10. Dave and Fran

    And now for something completely different.
    Thanks for the comments Earl so much of what you say I agree with.
    My wife and I have just returned home (to Cape Town South Africa) after spending a month in Bali.
    This is our fourth visit in as many years.
    On each occasion we have spent time in Kuta. Thank heavens we have also experienced the delights of other less commercial spots offered.
    People have personal likes and dislikes and there are many of your Kuta comments that we endorse fully . Top of our hate list (possibly too strong a word …possibly frustration is better used) is the bad mannered noisy (often inebriated) Aussies with tattoos covering the majority of their anatomy who believe they can do what they like. They ofter take over (be it the hotel pool, restaurant, beach) and feel that they own the area and make it uncomfortable for our more sedate requirements.
    Here are some interesting stats
    An average of 120 international flights arrive daily.
    An average of 176 domestic flights arrive daily.
    Bali has a domestic population of $4.4 million
    There are 2.5 million scooters in Bali.
    They have in excess of 15 million visitors per year.
    Many of these people stream to Kuta (and hey different strokes for different folks) they all cannot be wrong so we try to cut them some slack. We stay in Kuta on Poppies 1 for example. We have found a couple of Balinese style hotels which offer what we are looking for just a chip and a putt away from the madness of Poppies. Yes there are the commercial eateries in the area but there are also some gems serving a mix of local and western food at affordable prices. We stay away from the disco’s and night life of Legian Street but when passing it look extremely hectic. Again each to his or her own.
    The bottom line for us is that Kuta is not top of our list but the 5 days of the month spent there was just what we needed .
    Nice quiet(sedate and far less commercial) spot compared to Kuta with some very comfortable hotels. There are some fine eateries to choose from. Unfortunately the beaches leave much to be desired . Just flat water, no waves and at low tide an absolute waste of time.
    From our first visit to the last stay there have been a massive upswing in numbers and the commercialisation of the town itself. Still some fine (our style) Balinese style hotels (B & B’s) at affordable prices.
    A really great destination. Far less commercial and a good vibe. The one and a half hour fast boat trip from Padang Bai can be as bumpy as hell and if you return in the afternoon rough seas it becomes ”not at all nice”. Worth a visit with a wide range of hotels from 6 star to home stays.
    GILLI T ….(Trawangan)
    If you do not like Kuta you will not enjoy Gili T. Filthy, dirty and just overrun with people of the unsavoury kind. I guess there are some resorts that offer peace and quiet
    but the main area is (for us) to be avoided.
    A small island a short 30 minute fast boat trip from Sanur is interesting. Very very basic, unspoilt with tracks rather than roads makes it a welcoming attraction. Great sunsets, cold Bintang’s but forget about nightlife if that is what you are looking for. Accommodation from the basic to the opulent. A really good place to visit (well for us it was)

    Coming from South Africa our currency is one to one so we do not have the luxury that the Aussies do ……. with ten to one so we are careful on our budget. In Bali generally we can do that. My wife and I work for 11 months and take a month off just to chill and unwind and get ready for the next eleven months.
    We love the local people, polite friendly and understanding. Bali is to us a paradise destination.
    Kuta is part of it and we will always spend part of our holiday there.
    The downside is that because of it affordability and location to Australia (sorry for the …but it is not a generalisation but a fact) many of the visitors that frequent Kuta in particular cannot afford to holiday in Australia because of the price so we have to bear the brunt of their brashness in Bali. There is something for everyone in Bali. You just have to find what suits you. Look and you will find it.

    1. Annie

      Any opinions on Jimbaran or Seminyak? Those were the places i was looking at for our 1 year anniversary before I read all this awfulness about bali. It is a long flight and big investment from Canada. I was afraid to be disappointed so we may go somewhere else now. I was so looking forward to the culture though. The elephants, the temples, the flower markets. Im very disappointed.

      1. Tat

        I also think Gili T main street it’s a smaller version of Kuta minus the traffic (and that’s a huge advantage). With the difference that once you go inland (there’s not that much inland, but still), everything changes a lot. No drunks, no loud people, mostly locals who barely speak English and the odd yoga place, schools, etc. It’s a whole different world.

        The main street tho… I think I risked my life everytime I ventured there between drunk and obnoxious pedestrians, drank and obnoxious cyclists, and the donkey carts.

        I still met some of the nicest Indonesians there and became and stayed friends with them.

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