How to travel responsibly in Bali, Indonesia

Matteo Bierschneider
Jul 23, 2023

Increasing disposable incomes in many countries combined with enhanced mobility has led tourism to become one of the most dynamic and fast-growing industries in the world. The resulting negative impacts on environments, cultures, social structures and historic sights are becoming more and more evident. Although the “s-word” (sustainable tourism) has dramatically increased in use and popularity, I believe that it is not really adequate in defining the shift in tourism that we need to see. As travellers, we have to acknowledge that we are causing negative effects when travelling for leisure. We have the duty to understand what these effects are and we should ideally be responsible for them. That’s why I personally prefer the expression Responsible Tourism.

There are a growing number of publications about how to be a responsible traveller. Sometimes, however, these suggestions can be quite theoretical and not necessarily applicable in all destinations. That’s why I am very happy to share with all GOOD travellers out there about how we can be responsible travellers in Bali and how this will enhance your experience of this country.

1. Economic Empowerment:

Tourism as a source of economic empowerment can literally be life-changing for you and for local families if your journey is designed well. I admit there are fascinating international luxury resorts in Bali that would make your holiday very relaxing, but in order to be a GOOD traveller, it is important to be aware of the immense leakage rate in Bali (money being spent in Bali that flows out of the country to foreign owners and investors).

So how about a homestay or guesthouse where you can stay with a local family and witness first-hand the Balinese culture, traditions and lifestyle? The way of life, the strength of community and the perspectives of the Hindu religion can really change the way we understand our own little world. The profits go directly to local families, they are proud to share their culture and the parents can afford to send their kids to school. One of my favourite community-based projects is the village of Nyambu: a great place to stay and to get a real insight into local traditions. You can learn about farming, cooking, offerings, painting, temples, and even ride a bicycle to visit the famous Tanah Lot Temple at sunset.

When you book your journey, why not book with a trusted, well-established local travel agent instead of a big international tour operator? The digital world makes it possible -either do your research online, or if you have difficulties finding trustworthy local agencies use online platforms (e.g. KimKim) that connect you to local travel partners that they have already certified or evaluated.

Same goes for local products, local restaurants, local guides. Go local and you will not only have a more enriching and authentic experience, but you'll also have a GOOD impact!

2. Environmental Friendliness:

You are probably already aware of single use plastics and strategies to reduce waste, so here I want to focus on the best ways to avoid waste altogether.

First, bring your own bag when shopping because many shops in Bali just love to use plastic bags even if you only buy something small.

In most shops and supermarkets, they use a lot of packaging, so try going to a local market to buy fresh fruit and other groceries right there. It is cheaper, you will be supporting local farmers and it is a great opportunity to understand local life and traditions. So, a definite win-win!

Bali is a very hot and humid island, so as a visitor you will want to drink a lot. Until recently, it was difficult to avoid purchasing plastic bottles of water when you are on the road and don't have access clean water. Now, thanks to the app Refill My Bottle, you can find many places throughout Bali and Asia to refill your bottle. Sometimes you can do so for free or sometimes you will be asked to pay a small fee of 2.000 IDR, which is still much cheaper than buying a plastic bottle of water. Plus, the stores that offer this service are often very interesting places that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. So, don't forget to bring a reusable water bottle with you to Bali.

Last but not least, one of the main environmental impacts of travelling is carbon emissions. For six tips on how to reduce your carbon emissions see this blog article. Ultimately though, you will create some carbon emissions, so for an interactive way to offset your emissions, why not plant some mangroves and learn about their importance while you're in Bali? Here is an organisation that is very committed to this cause:

3. Animal Welfare:

Animal attractions are one of the most sold activities in tourism and very popular with many travellers. Bali is no exception; there are animal parks, bird parks, butterfly parks and many more.

In my previous job as a responsible tourism advisor, I have personally audited many animal parks on sustainability standards and had a look behind the scenes. This made me realise how big the business behind these attractions is and how bad the impacts can be if we as travellers continue to create demand for animal attractions. Certainly not all institutions are bad, but as travellers we need to use common sense to identify whether or not we should be visiting animal attractions. For example, since when are there ZEBRAS in Bali and how did they get here? Is it fun for an orangutan in captivity to hug people all day long and get plenty of selfies? How did a (wild) elephant learn to play basketball and is it fun to do that every day? How come that a lion is completely quiet when taking pictures with visitors?  

We all have a reasonable idea of how animals behave in the wilderness and that these animal parks don’t even get close to giving them the opportunity to behave or live as they would in the wild. We have the responsibility to ask these questions and reflect on the impacts that we create when visiting these facilities.

For GOOD travellers interested in seeing native animals, Indonesia has plenty of areas with natural habitats for elephants, tigers, orangutans, birds etc. for example in North Sumatra, Raja Ampat and Kalimantan. And what can be better than observing an orangutan in the jungle of Kalimantan in their natural habitat?

In Bali, there are great places for bird-watching such as the Botanical Gardens in Bedugul or to spot dear in the West Bali National Park. For everyone who wants to see zebras, I highly recommend Botswana.

4. Children in Tourism:

A very difficult topic but an important one to mention is the issue of children in tourism, especially in Bali. Here are a few examples:

When waiting at traffic lights in the area of Seminyak there are frequently kids walking around trying to sell tissues, other items or simply asking for money. As heartbreaking as it might sometimes be, it is better if you don’t buy anything and don’t give anything (money, food, etc.) to these kids. Worst case, there is a beggar-mafia behind it, best case the kid makes good money, which will ultimately bind them to the streets and reduce their chances of getting a proper education.

Another by now much criticised form of tourism is called Orphanage Tourism. There are still orphanages or child-care institutions that invite tourists to visit and engage with the children in dance shows or games in exchange for donations. In many cases in Asia this quickly turns into a massive business opportunity for locals. Children are not tourism objects and orphanages or schools with children are no places for tourists. Try to bring a group of Asian tourists into a European orphanage - this would not be possible and that’s for a good reason. The risk of abuse or institutionalisation of children as objects is too high.

There are a few rules we should follow as GOOD travellers when coming in contact with local children on our journey in Bali. It is okay to be nice to them and play with them, but you should try to avoid touching the head as it is considered a sacred part of our body in Hindu culture. Also, when taking pictures of children, please make sure to ask the parents for permission. Again, use your common sense - how would you feel if your child is playing in the streets at home and all of a sudden a group of Asian travellers are taking pictures of your child without asking?

If you want to support families and children in Bali there are plenty of organisations that you can donate to, for example Alternatively, you can also visit places that are supporting these causes and contribute by buying their products such as the Fair Warung Bale or the Global Village Kafe in Lovina in North Bali. You can get tasty meals or drinks and feel satisfied knowing your payment is received by those in need.

For more tips on how to ensure you are contributing to child protection when travelling, see this blog article.

5. Respect & Empathy:

Lastly, I want to address not the way we travel, but rather the way we are as human beings.

When travelling to Bali, GOOD travellers should try to learn about the local rituals, languages and traditions, the cultural do’s and don’ts, and the way communities are organised. That is all part of being respectful and appreciative when visiting someone’s country. We should not forget that we are guests in Bali. Even if the incredible hospitality of Balinese people might make you feel like a king that doesn’t mean you can behave like one. Let us remember to always be respectful and empathetic towards other human beings and their way of life.

The best part of it is that when you act respectfully, you will be recognised and sometimes rewarded by the locals, and it might open the door to a completely different world of experiences and travelling. Just go ahead and try to say: ‘Matur Suksema’ (=Balinese: Thank you very much) instead of ‘Terima kasih banyak’ (=Bahasa Indonesia: Thank you very much) - I bet 10 bugs that you will at least get a big smile back or even an extra mango at the market 😊

July 23, 2023
5 min read