The Facebook-based web page Bali: How Much Is Too Much? passed a major milestone today, by reaching over 100,000 participants. A defiantly non-commercial page, it began at the end of 2013 to expose the sheer scale and quantity of tourism development engulfing the paradise island of Bali. Since then it has rocketed in popularity, hitting the 100K mark and still growing, with the vast majority of its fans logging in from Indonesia, and citing Indonesian as their native language.
Page founder, Susi Johnston is dumbfounded herself that the page has struck such a chord for so many people. “I never meant for this to be any big thing. I just kept bumping into all these announcements and master plans for more and more tourism projects in Bali, and I saw cranes and diggers everywhere already, so I had to ask myself, how much is too much, really?”
She continues, “There is so much coming, and there’s clearly too much here already. Just look at the infrastructure and social structures buckling under the weight of it all. Bali’s beginning to seem more like a zombie apocalypse theme park than a paradise island. In shock, I shared some of the links I found with a few people I know, then a friend of mine from the band Armada Racun told me to make a Facebook page and put all of the projects I found up there, just drop them on the page. I did. And before I knew it there were 50,000 liking the page! Now there are 100,000. I’m flabbergasted. I guess a lot of people are very concerned about Bali’s fate. And they should be.”
Nearly every day, another report appears in the international media about overdevelopment in Bali. They highlight critical issues like chronically gridlocked traffic, mountains of garbage, environmental degradation, inconsistent regulatory and zoning enforcement, skyrocketing crime rates, the deterioration of “Brand Bali,” and the fading quality of the tourism product that the island offers. Tourism is a competitive and consumptive industry, and Bali’s leaders seem paralyzed, and unable to act decisively in shaping the island’s future.
One issue that has burst to the fore in Bali development debate is a controversial proposal for a tourism mega-project to be built in the middle of Benoa Bay, on land created by reclamation of the bay itself, building islands and beaches from material to be excavated elsewhere. The project, in Indonesian is referred to as “Reklamasi Teluk Benoa,” or simply “Reklamasi”, and a grassroots movement has sprung up all over Bali, and indeed Indonesia, as well as overseas, under the call to action: “Tolak Reklamasi” (Reject Reclamation).
Johnston, like the Facebook page she manages, takes the neutral stance of a soldier in shellshock, “I’m not anti-development. I’m not really very anti anything. But I can’t figure out for the life of me, how Bali could possibly have the carrying capacity for this huge mega-project with hotels, casinos, condotels, villas, shopping malls, theme parks, and an F1 circuit — on top of all of the developments that I’ve posted on the page, and in addition to the already excess load of existing tourism stuff here. Whether it happens or not, is not a decision that’s mine to make or influence, but I can’t see any logic in it at all. The very notion is almost absurd. But there you have it.”
When asked why she thinks development in Bali has turned into a mad stampede of epic western proportions, threatening to trample everything in its path to dust, Johnston posits, “It looks like a classic case of ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.’ I see a terrible lack of information gathering, data collation, report making, and file keeping in the relevant public agencies. And in private enterprises and NGOs, too. Nobody has the data.
“The top Southeast Asian property consulting agencies don’t even have accurate data, just scraps. The Bali government doesn’t either. The Bali Statistics Office has almost no statistics in it. And neither do the districts, or the planning and public works offices. Nobody has the raw data, much less any useful collated data.
“I think at this very moment, there are developers and investors in dozens of cities around the world sitting down and looking at the same sparse bits of inaccurate information, and making the same decisions based on the same business modelling apps, then they’re all rushing in to do exactly the same thing, in paralell, not knowing that 20 or even 60 other developers and investors are doing exactly the same thing. It’s madness.
“Globalism is partly to blame. Many of these decision-makers speak and read only certain languages, and they exchange information and friendship with only certain regional circles of other businesspeople. So right now, say, in a boardroom in Guangzhou some guys are shaking hands over a Bali resort development deal. Meanwhile some guys in Helsinki are doing the same in English. And some guys in a whisky bar in Japan are doing the same in Japanese. And in Dubai. And Jakarta. And Rio. And Seoul.
Johnston was formerly the Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Wright Runstad & Co, one of the most prestigious large-scale commercial property developers in the western United States, so she has the background to size up the scale of a property industry train wreck in the making from the side of the railroad tracks as the trains hurtle forward at speed. So what does she see for Bali?
“It’s unprecedented. So it’s unpredictible. Anything can happen. Because of the diversity of interests involved here, and the extraordinary qualities of Bali itself, I don’t think we’ll see anything like a classic burst bubble. I do see ‘yard sales’ however, with properties periodically needing to be offloaded, desperately, at yard sale prices. If I were a player, I’d hold my cash, and wait for opportunities. I also see a need in the future to repurpose properties that were built, or half-built, for tourism, but failed.
“All these condotels and resort structures here would make excellent educational facilities. Branch campuses of specific departments of prestigious overseas universities, maybe. Or academies of the arts, fashion industry, or public-private partnership training centers for job and life skills. Or digital arts schools, film studios, app and game development hubs. Or artists’ collectives, like ones we’ve seen in China and elsewhere, that house emerging artists, and provide studio and exhibition space. It would be a dream come true if failed tourism facilities could become the crucibles of creative enterprises and new skills for the future.”
Bali: How Much Is Too Much?