Opinion & Analysis

Bali's Bad Tourists

From a Russian hiker who dropped his pants on a holy mountain to an Australian woman who lambasted a policeman who pulled her over for riding a scooter without a helmet, reports of tourists misbehaving in Bali have become almost daily events, but can a tourist tax fix bad behaviour by tourists in Bali? Journalist Dave Smith takes a closer look. 

The Balinese people are famed for their tolerance, but now they’ve drawn a line in the sand. In addition to deporting serious offenders – more than 100 have been given their marching orders this year – a raft of new laws and measures have been proposed to try to rectify the problem of tourists behaving disrespectfully.

The Governor of Bali said they would ban foreigners from renting scooters despite scooters being a hugely popular form of transport on the island. Then he said he wanted to remove Russians – who account for only 2.5 percent of foreign tourists but 27 percent of deportees – from the list of nationalities that can apply for a visa-on-arrival.

There have also been what Indonesia calls ‘socialisation programs’ to stop tourists wearing skimpy beachwear on the street, getting drunk and disorderly and disrespecting temples and holy sites, as well as a police crackdown on traffic violations by foreigners.

But the bans never eventuated, and the socialisation programs have faded away.

A Balinese family prepare for a picnic on Batu Bolong Beach/ image Dave Smith

The government now has a new solution: a ‘tourist tax’ that will ostensibly increase the "quality" of tourists and deter unwanted guests. At a media briefing earlier this month, Indonesia's Minister for Tourism Sandiaga Uno told the Australian Financial Review that a levy of between $48 and $160 could be introduced this year.

Tourism taxes are nothing new. Austria adds 3 percent to every hotel bill for non-residents. Most Caribbean islands have tourist taxes added to departure fees ranging from $21 in the Bahamas to $78 in Antigua and Barbuda. Overcrowded Venice will start charging tourists $17 each starting in June, while Thailand has announced a new $14 tax for tourists who fly into the country in the same month.

Irrespective of whether a tourist tax is introduced in Bali, experts and academics a new tax it will not solve the problem of badly behaving tourists.

“Research pointing to a clear connection between cheap tourism and ‘bad behaviour’ is lacking,” says an industry insider who has worked for decades in Bali who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Consider the recent rash of tourists behaving inappropriately in Bali. Were they staying in cheap homestays or high-end villas? Without knowing this it’s hard not to see other motivations at play. When crimes are committed at luxury resorts like the ‘suitcase killers’ who murdered a woman at the St Regis luxury resort in 2014, or the more recent murder-suicide of two Chinese tourists at the InterContinental Hotel, there were no calls for a reduction in luxury travel to Bali.”

Religious worship is an integral part of life for the Balinese/ image Dave Smith

Ross Taylor, the founder of the Indonesia Institute, a think tank in Perth, concurs: “Contrary to the perception that only lower-class people cause trouble, rich people behave badly in Bali too.”

More so, evidence shows foreigners who visit Bali are highly price sensitive. After Indonesia waived the $37 visa-on-arrival fee for visitors from Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia in 2015, arrivals increased by 16 percent over three months compared to only 3 percent over the previous two months.

A study on the impact of visa-free entry in Indonesia by Hiroshima University in Japan the following year confirmed the results, noting free tourist visas “can significantly boost the number of tourist arrivals.”

No one seemed to care much when a new $53 fee for visa-on-arrival was introduced when Indonesia reopened its borders to tourists on March 7 last year. This is essentially a tourist tax, but after two years of Covid lockdowns and border closures, people were just happy to go overseas.

Bali welcomed 2.3 million international tourists in 2022 and is expecting 4.5 million this year, according to the Bali Provincial Government.

But an 'official' tourist tax will put a big dent on that projection,  according to Ross Taylor at the Indonesia Institute. 

“I would like to remind officials in Indonesia that Australia is the largest source country for foreign arrivals in Bali and most are families, so any new tax will need to be multiplied by four times on average. An additional AU$600 could be a deal breaker at a time when international airfares are at their highest levels ever and hotels in Bali are also charging more. A tourist tax will make Australians go to Thailand or travel domestically instead.”

Where the money collected by a tourist tax will go is another source of contention. Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Indonesia in 110th place out of 180 countries on its Global Corruption Perception Index.

The same problem has been flagged in Thailand, which ranks 101st place on the index, and where only vague information has been released on how revenue from the tourist tax will be spent.  

“Without a cap on the number of ‘tickets’, a tourist tax is just revenue raising and the funds often falling into some opaque government financial black hole,” notes Stuart McDonald, the Bali-based publisher of Southeast Asian travel guide Travelfish.org.

Another problem facing Bali in its drive to attract higher ‘quality’ tourists is the poor quality of its infrastructure.

In the island’s heavily touristed south, many roads are in such bad shape that traffic moves at a crawl. There are very few streetlights and the few footpaths that exist are riddled with hazards. Tap water is unfit for drinking, and electrocutions from dodgy wiring are not uncommon.

There is also a serious law and order deficit: bag snatchers and sexual predators operate with impunity, tourist police are rarely seen and traffic regulations are rarely enforced.

Niluh Djetlantik is a Balinese fashion designer who shot to fame by using her Instagram account as a hub to name and shame unruly foreigners. She continues to ask why foreign tourists do things in Bali they wouldn’t do in their own country, like riding a scooter without a helmet.

She perhaps fails to acknowledge that these tourists are often just copying the locals. This does not justify unlawful behaviour but for some people it will always be a case of 'monkey see, monkey do'. At the end of the day, if Bali wants to attract better quality tourists, it needs to 'be' a better quality destination.

Mountain Biking near Ubud / image Dave Smith

Mountain Biking near Ubud / image Dave Smith

So what can Bali do about bad tourists?  

Ross Taylor at the Indonesia Institute recommends a sustained crackdown and heavier fines for individual transgressors. “My advice would be to avoid any new arrival fees and instead strengthen deportation and incarceration rules," he says.

"This will not only deter tourists from behaving badly, but will be supported by the majority of tourists who do the right thing.”

*please note that Dave Smith is a pseudonym*

- Asia Media Centre