KUTA, Indonesia (CN) — Of many favored locations on Indonesia's tropical island of Bali, Kuta in the south remains one of the most well-known among tourists.
“Do you want girls? Mushrooms?” A local guy on a motorbike asks national foreigners competing for space on Kuta’s narrow sidewalks leading to the beach.
Loud bars, jam-packed restaurants and hundreds of joyful foreigners escaping realities from home rob the sounds of taxi services filling the streets.
The air at Kuta beach is filled with languages from around the globe. Adults and kids are using the 1.2-mile shore to surf, swim and have fun.
Locals and foreigners alike are stunned as the sunset paints the sky pink and turns the ocean into a dark abyss.
No one predicted that a pandemic would shut down the party for almost two years. When Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a lockdown in 2021 to control the spike of Covid-19 infections in Bali, locals would soon find themselves in a surreal situation where foreign tourists could no longer visit their businesses.
Before the lockdown, 60% of Bali’s gross regional product was found in the tourism industry. While the island has roughly 4 million residents, over 6 million foreign tourists visited in 2019. This number shrunk to less than 1 million in 2021.
The number of foreign visitors today is not near the same as in 2019, but tourists are returning to the island since borders opened in January 2022. The Indonesian government wants to continue this development, as it aims to boost foreign capital investment into the nation’s economy.
In October, after being selected to host the G20 summit, Indonesia’s Directorate General of Immigration announced the “second home" visa for foreign nationals wishing to stay in the country for up to 10 years. The visa is a paradigm shift in the country’s economic policy, as it makes it easier for foreigners to invest in Indonesia’s housing and tourism sectors, something that traditionally has been reserved for locals to prevent foreigners from occupying the market.
“Our fear is the ease of foreign investment, especially if it is targeting mass tourism, prioritizing proliferation from projects that damage the environment,” said Made Krisna "Bokis" Dinata, director of WALHI Bali, an organization fighting to protect the island's ecosystem.
Dinata has led demonstrations against giant Bali projects built for mass tourism, primarily those threatening its remaining rainforests, agricultural land and mangroves.
“The Balinese people will forever be confronted by a damaged environment, which the next generation will inherit. If this continues to happen, it will be a nightmare for our survival in Bali,” he said.
Bali’s economy continues to be dependent on foreign tourists. A total ban on foreign investments on the island would cause damage to local entrepreneurs. However, investors should play a crucial part in conserving the island's remaining nature, Dinata told Courthouse News.
“The ease of investing for foreigners who live and want to contribute to the Indonesian economy, especially Bali, must also be balanced with their awareness to take part in preserving the environment in Bali,” he said.
Kuta’s transformation serves as an inspirational source for much modern-day tourism development in Bali.
Once a former fishing village, international tourism in Kuta dates back to the 19th century, when the Dutch successfully seized control of the island and branded its newly obtained jewel as a perfect paradise for foreign visitors.
Even after Indonesian independence in 1945, this image of Bali persists. It became a commodity for the political system centered in the neighboring island of Java, where the republic’s economic heart beats.
Kuta has undergone a massive transformation through giant state-run development projects that aimed to attract more visitors to Bali starting in the 1960s. In the 20th century, development in Bali’s tourism sector exploded.