Bali is one of the magical names in travel. It conjures up visions of a place that is remote, sensual and exquisite, a land with gracious people and a refined and complex culture. This is the Bali that painter, writer and ethnologist Miguel Covarrubias described in his classic book, “Island of Bali,” published in 1937. Thirty years ago, much of the idyll remained intact. Then the Australians discovered that their winter was an ideal time to go surfing off Bali’s Kuta Beach and that the flight time from Sydney was less than seven hours. Next, Europeans began to arrive in ever-greater numbers. Finally, the newly wealthy countries of Asia began to spend their money on vacations. Last year, nearly 20 percent of foreign tourists to Bali were from China, a total of roughly 1.4 million visitors. (And this was the year that the eruption of Bali’s biggest volcano, Mount Agung, became a fixture on cable-television news.) Nowadays travel sophisticates tend to sniff, “Bali’s finished,” before turning their attention to the other 17,507 islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
Areas of central and northern Bali remain serenely agricultural, with a ravishing landscape of sculptured rice terraces.
Actually, this dismissive attitude isn’t entirely fair. And newfound wealth from tourism has, apparently, made the Balinese even more generous donors to the lavish rituals and festivals that punctuate their colorful religious calendar. But overall the transformation is inescapable: Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is huge, serving up to 25 million passengers a year; the traffic in the island’s capital, Denpasar, is frequently gridlocked; and the 15-mile drive from Denpasar to the cultural center of Ubud takes anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half hours.
The national government in faraway Jakarta seems to have a slightly schizophrenic attitude to Balinese tourism. On the one hand, the policy seems to be “the more the merrier,” but on the other hand, in an apparent attempt at conservation, hotel development is encouraged in the southern part of the island, the Bukit Peninsula, which is arid and, unlike areas to the north, of little use for rice farming. Bali was nearly two islands, and only a narrow isthmus — the site of the airport — connects Bukit to the principal landmass. Historically, the south was a cultural backwater, despite having one of Bali’s major temples at Uluwatu. But as well as boasting some of Bali’s best surfing beaches, Bukit’s terrain is also conducive to golf-course construction.