Sustainable Bali Tourism: How to be a Better Bali Tourist

Sustainable Bali Tourism: Bali is a lush island in paradise, boasting a diverse and undeniably stunning ecological landscape; but this landscape is under threat by the very industry that encourages visitors from all across the world.

by Victoria Sztanek

Tourists flock to this Indonesian island in numbers that have steadily increased over the last few years.[1] In 2018, there were approximately 16 million local and domestic tourists visiting Bali.[2] Coming from richer countries like Australia, China, Japan and Britain, their impact has strengthened the tourism industry and contributed significantly to the Indonesian economy.

However, the influx and asymmetrical concentration of tourists in the south, in areas like Kuta, Semniyak and Canggu, has led to on-the-ground negative consequences like drought and plastic pollution. While the Indonesian government relies on tourism as a substantial source of employment and the crucial industry revenue it produces, individuals who plan to visit Bali have an opportunity to minimize their negative impact. By familiarizing themselves with key ecological and social issues, strategic ways to minimize impact on the environment during their vacation can easily be employed.

Plastic: The Main Problem with Bali Tourism

Plastic pollution is evident all over Bali and surrounding smaller islands like Nusa Penida. Amidst tourists taking selfies with the stunning natural landscape for their Instagram stories, garbage lies unsuspectingly scattered on the ground. The litter has, in a way, almost become a part of the natural décor. Plastic bottles dumped in the Monkey Forest in Ubud and garbage washing up on the Balinese beaches serve as powerful visual demonstrations.

The garbage problem is evident even in the most touristic of places. On popular Kuta beach, eighteen tons of garbage, consisting largely of plastic waste, was collected over a three-day cleanup last year. The Environment and Forestry Ministry’s Environmental Pollution and Damage Control Directorate General estimated that “ocean trash throughout Indonesia totaled 1.2 million tons” in 2017, of which 31 percent was plastic.[3] Globally, Indonesia produces the most plastic waste in the world after China, contributing 3.2 million tons annually.[4]

Trash building up due to Bali Tourism
Trash seems to almost blend into the natural landscape on Nusa Penida.

In a context where concerns about ocean plastic have led to powerful (yet, contested) claims that there will be more plastic than fish by 2050 and recent governmental action for single-use plastic bans in Canada and by the European Parliament, the Indonesian government has taken its own action to combat the plastic problem. In 2016, the province of Bali saw a 50 percent reduction of plastic waste after a trial tax on plastic bags.[5] In 2018, a ban on certain single-use plastics like “shopping bags, Styrofoam and straws” was enacted in an effort to decrease marine plastics by 70 percent.[6]

Last year, the capital, Jakarta, followed suit, announcing a regulation that bans “single-use plastic bags from its street markets and shopping malls.”[7] The problem, however, cannot be fixed overnight. While bamboo straws inside coconuts at popular restaurants and glass straws for sale on street corners demonstrate the practical and positive momentum of the plastic-free movement, plastic waste and plastic bottles are still evident all over the island. At many establishments, take-out food still comes in a plastic bag of Styrofoam containers and disposable cutlery.

Plastic bottles are in the hands of many tourists and locals alike, given out at spas and luxury hotels. As a result of continued plastic use, garbage washes up on Bali’s shores, requiring mass clean ups. While the government is on the right track with these legal changes, to fully normalize a plastic-free lifestyle and form new habits takes considerable time.

Bali Buda takeaway box
A popular restaurant in downtown Ubud (Bali Buda) uses creative sustainable packaging for take-out orders.


Another severe impact of tourism felt in Bali is drought. Last year, about 92 percent of the nation experienced drought, with nine provinces severely impacted from a significantly harsher dry season. The results included the scarcity of clean water, declining supply of irrigation water and crop failure.[8]  While irregularly dry and harsh seasons are symptoms of the much larger problem of climate change, the strain tourists have placed on the system have only aggravated the problem. 

Groundwater is exploited by hotels and water is diverted to urban areas to accommodate the heavily populated south.[9] According to the Indonesian non-governmental organization IDEP, sixty-five percent of the island’s water is used for tourism.[10] IDEP’s vision is life in harmony with nature and one of its campaigns is the Bali Water Protection Program.

In about 10 years, Bali’s water table “has dropped over 50 meters in some areas” and a number of wells run dry “or with foul water”, especially in the south.[11] Luxury resorts and villas that boast large swimming pools, with gardens and golf courses, have some estimates placing an average tourist consuming  “between 2,000 and 4,000 litres of water a day”[12].

Accommodating mass tourism has also disrupted traditional irrigation processes like subak. Since the ninth century, subak has served as “a sophisticated irrigation system” diverting water from a channel to the rice field and back again [13]. An important cultural, religious and practical irrigation tradition, it corresponds to Bali’s iconic rice farming.[14] In areas like Canggu, rice fields are disappearing entirely and being replaced with structures of development.[15]

Solutions for Sustainable Bali Tourism

Ecologically minded and aware tourists who would like to visit Bali in a sustainable way can heed the following. 

  • Bring a reusable water bottle. The most obvious solution is probably the most effective. Try to drink filtered water and use re-fillable water terminals that are common in guesthouses. This solution may seem like a small act, but in a hot climate where drinking more water than usual is normal – it can have a huge impact if you eliminate your plastic water bottle contribution.
  • Bring re-usable bags with you wherever you go. Most grocery stores won’t give you plastic bags anyways but bringing your re-usable bag to avoid any sort of plastic consumption when shopping for souvenirs in markets is ideal.
  • Stay away from the concentrated south. While you consider which area to stay in, try the road less traveled – avoid the main spots of the south to limit your contribution to overcrowding. Plans currently exist to develop the northern parts of the island.
  • Empower yourself and your environment by joining a clean-up. There are many cleanups on coastal shores and they are an incredible way to meet others while honoring the island. Remember, it is a privilege that you are visiting Bali. Scheduling time in your vacation to help out in a meaningful and honest way to bring about beautiful and unique memories.
  • Consider staying at an eco-lodge or guest house. There are a ton of really cool eco-lodges on the island in the middle of paradise, which have a more sustainable impact than simply staying at a high-end hotel. Guesthouses are a really great way to live modestly and support locals. Remember, you have the power to make an impact with your financial support. Always be considerate of your resource use.
  • Eat responsibly. Eat local. Support the warungs that serve local Indonesian food and opt for vegan options. There is no shortage of local vegan places all over the island.
  • Indonesia is, by global standards, a developing nation. People go there not only because it’s beautiful but also because its affordable. Be aware of where you are coming from. Be kind. Tip generously. Support things you believe in and that are local–like this bio-cassava bag, which is made out of a common root vegetable in Indonesia and is entirely biodegradable.

Remember that entering the island of Bali is a privilege. With this privilege comes the responsibility to research and question how you can make a better impact on the beautiful environment of this Indonesian province. While tourism takes its toll on infrastructure and traditional processes, it is still a vital industry for the economy. Rather than boycott travel here, putting your dollar towards worthy initiatives can help minimize your impact, while still simultaneously enjoying your vacation.

[1] International Tourist Visit to Bali by I Nengah Subadra, PhD. Bali Tourism Directory.

[2] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water  by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.

[3] 18 tons of trash collected in three-day coastal cleanup at Kuta Beach.

The Jakarta Post. December 19, 2019.

[4] Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean by Jenna R. Jambeck, Rolan Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law. ISWA February 13, 2015. Vol 347. Issue 6223.

[5] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water  by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.

[6] Bali enacts plastics ban, targeting 70 percent reduced use in 2019.

The Jakarta Post. December 25, 2018.

[7] Indonesia’s capital bans single-use plastic bags from markets and malls by Tabita Diela and Stanley Widianto. Reuters. January 7, 2020.

[8] Indonesia: Drought Information bulletin by International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies. October 17, 2019.

[9] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.

[10] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.


[12] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.

[13] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.

[14] Subak: A Sustainable System of Irrigation  by The Bali Villages. October 18, 2016.

[15] Bali: The tropical Indonesian island that is running out of water by Ian Lloyd Neubauer. Al Jazeera. December 2, 2019.