Over the Top Tourism on Nusa Lembongan
Picture this: beneath an arch of blue sky, where tendrils of fuchsia bougainvillea frame a distant Mount Agung, an afternoon is passed in the company of frosted Bintang beers, plates of satay and sunlight. And there I was, thinking about ripping Nusa Lembongan a new one.
Eating lunch at a humble warung near the Mangrove Forest on the island’s north, I was ready to swim back to mainland, with or without my bags.
For those who haven’t visited, Nusa Lembongan is an island of roughly 5000 residents located alongside two other islands – Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida – 12 kilometres southeast of Bali. Accessible from the old resort town of Sanur by a 30-minute boat ride, it once housed a series of sleepy fishing villages and seaweed farms, and a handful of rudimentary bungalows designed for surfers and anti-crowd travellers.
Circa 2016, Lembongan is a mass of luxury villas, urbane eateries and beach bars filled with bronzed global citizens. It’s a body of water zig-zagged by banana boats and jet skis; a network of roads choked with mini-trucks heaving with tourists en route to a daytrip.
Today, the island is a strip of shops and cafes slapped together: a series of cold drip coffee bars, vegan bistros, tattoo parlours, yoga studios and a gym all vying for custom. Lembongan’s governing trope is a selfie. While its geographic beauty still remains – crumpled headlands sloping lazily into liquid sapphire, layers upon layers of tropical palms – tourism’s new hold on the island surprised me.
Sure, my first visit to Lembongan was only just under eight years ago. I’ve little authority when it comes to the you-shoulda-seen-Bali-20-years-ago discussion. But even during my second visit in 2011 there were considerably fewer tourists – so much so, that when my brother scootered unknowingly into a residential compound, the local men stood up and stared in a way that said ‘get the hell out’.
The biggest change here is the amount – the sheer volume – of tourists, many of whom belong to holiday tours. This has resulted in what looks like a tripling of accommodation, dining and activity options, aided considerably by Airbnb.
There are now so many scuba companies I suspect visitors will soon find dive packages on restaurant menus, between the US$5 cheesy fries and “spagetti” carbonara. Snorkel, fish, jet ski, stand-up paddle, kayak, surf – c’mon, boss, what’s your price?
Somewhat surprisingly, what hasn’t changed is the size of the roads, despite their increased load. Around Lembongan’s Mangrove Forest, ‘road’ is nary the appropriate word any more, such are these bone-rattling paths of rocks and holes, chewed away by scooters.
And yet this area underwater has also suffered. The rapid increase of unregulated tourism, namely in the form of scuba and snorkel boats, has generated mass coral bleaching and the destruction of large formations. When snorkelling, I encountered a palette of far less kindergarten colours than dehydrated pastels, and just a handful of healthy patches. The detritus of the industry lay in the thousands of broken coral pieces, piled like rotting Lego on the ocean floor.
Okay, sure. I’ll admit the fish were still pretty spectacular. One can only marvel at their perseverance in waters so soiled by petrol. During the day I saw fish resembling spoons, bananas and Leunig characters; fish coloured like molten highlighters; bright blue fish whose iridescence I can’t render in print. At some stage dozens of pencil-thin garfish even let me join their pack and together we stalked a ball of baitfish.
But I already know what you’re thinking: spoilt Westerner on a rant. There’s nothing worse than someone complaining about tourism as a tourist; it’s about as logical as a driver demanding to know why all the car spots are taken. And yes, of course I’d rather be the tourist on Lembongan than the young labourer building villas in the midday heat, or the octogenarian shopkeeper dealing with all the drawling English. So, I should quit my whinging.
But I’m not the only person lamenting the island’s change.
Our homestay host Rati explained that increased tourism has been coupled with increased crime, perpetrated by locals and tourists. Last month she had a guest skip town without paying his room or scooter hire, something she says wouldn’t have happened five years ago. She also explained that her sinuses have suffered from the rising level of dust and pollution. But on the other hand, one must look beyond Rati’s sinus health for the greener grass.
The thriving tourism sector has boosted local employment and landed more money in the local government’s coffers, which fund maintenance, temple upkeep and welfare for disadvantaged families (but surely not the roads).
But like we have seen with so many paradises (Ko Pha-Ngan, Kompong Som) the environmental consequence of OTT-tourism is usually an afterthought. When local business and entrepreneurship is thriving, what’s the problem?
Mainland Bali has long been weighing up the pros and cons of shifting further from agriculture towards tourism. In high-demand areas like Canggu and Ubud, there is considerable temptation for families to sell inherited land to prospective developers.
According to farmland conservation foundation Sawah Bali, 1,000 hectares of Balinese farmland is being converted to tourism property each year. Additionally, the island is already testing its self-sufficiency, relying on imported rice from Vietnam, India and Myanmar.
Meanwhile in Lembongan, where the arid soil is relatively unsuitable for agriculture, that temptation is only stronger. You can almost hear the lucrative tourism economy breathing down the locals’ necks.
Nevertheless, there are still throngs of people, including locals, thoroughly enjoying themselves on Lembongan, apparently unaware of, or untroubled by, its progress. On the final day, this led me to reassess my experience.
If I’m the only one bah humbugging in paradise, I thought to myself, then it’s clear I’ve let expectation get the better of me. If I’m the only one missing out on Lembongan’s lasting splendour – cool breeze, warm water, barbecue smoke in the air – then I’m a pretty shit traveller.
Coming to terms with this one afternoon in the same humble warung near Mangrove Forest, admiring Mount Agung with a Bintang in hand, I let my bad vibes go, inhaled the salty air and did the only thing I could in that moment: I took a selfie.
Cover by Tatiana Scher