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Niluh Djelantik’s Tireless Fight to Promote Ethical Tourism in Bali: Change Makers Series

Posted: 05 May 2023
Niluh Djelantik (left) and Janet DeNeefe (right) at Indus Restaurant. Thursday, 13 April 2023. (UWRF/Patricia Emanuelle)

“It’s not that I’m anti-foreigner. The only thing I ask the foreigners who live here is, on a bare minimum, please at least follow the rules just like us, in terms of your documents, tax payments, and remunerations.”

Niluh Djelantik is best known as a famous fashion shoe designer with a flagship store in Seminyak, but recently—she has taken up a new cause. She’s been passionate about promoting ethical tourism in Bali, by calling out the problematic tourists that visit the island.

Niluh points out that there seems to be a pattern to pesky tourist behaviour in Bali—either they engage in culturally-inappropriate behaviours, like posing naked on a sacred site, or breaking local law by working illegally or driving recklessly.

Ideas about a solution for this problem was discussed at a program, Change Maker: A Night of Inspiring Conversation, where Niluh spoke about how she got involved. The event was organised by the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on 13 April, 2023, at the Indus Restaurant. It’s a monthly talk show featuring Bali’s most prominent and impactful social activists moderated by the festival founder and director, Janet DeNeefe.

As locals’ anger at the problematic foreigners has begun to rise, they’ve been reporting it to Niluh—who has been serving as an extension of the local people’s “voice” of sorts. This is because they trust that she will facilitate these reports with her connections with the relevant local authorities. She is engaging with key stakeholders, such as relevant Ministries, and the police in hopes to deal with the issues problematic tourists can bring.

On her Instagram account you can find content of her exposing and bringing problematic tourists to light. By doing this, she’s aiming to bring to light these problematic behaviours to the authorities’ attention, or mediating such cases with the local police and adat (traditional custom) communities. Her approach seems to be effective so far, with the called-out parties usually issuing statements of apologies.

In a recent statement, Niluh says, “Many people in Bali feel like it’s better to report to mbok Niluh [referring to herself] than going directly to the authorities because they know I’ll always respond to their messages and help mediate these cases.”

According to Niluh, naming and shaming public authorities is not an effective strategy to deal with foreigners who break local law, and violate local cultural norms. Instead, acknowledging the good work that the authorities do and calling out the offenders is key to persuasive activism, and more effective.

Hence, when working with these cases, she’s careful not to point her fingers or single out certain authority figures or community elements as the cause of these problems. “When you point fingers, you will only create anger,” she said.

“This is why, when I’m dealing with the police, for instance, I always begin by giving them credit for their work, to acknowledge the work they have done. I also focus on the good police officers, instead of on the oknum (bad apples).” This is what makes her work with the authorities very effective. This is great advice for anyone who seeks to engage with different stakeholders in social activism.

Niluh said that her work had also been motivated by her compassion for fellow Balinese people upon witnessing foreigners working illegally in Bali and starting to take away locals’ jobs. According to a Coconuts Bali report, some of these foreigners start illegally offering services like tours, surf lessons, and villa rentals, which are crucial for the locals.

Niluh Djelantik at Indus Restaurant on Thursday, 13 April 2023 (UWRF/Yogi Pradana)

“They even use social media to promote their illegal business. Now, the locals are competing with what was formerly their clients. What would happen to these local people when they lose their jobs?” she said.

So far, about 47 foreigners have been deported from Bali for breaking visa rules. Recently, a couple of tourists have also been deported from Bali for posting naked photos on sacred sites.

Niluh’s activism to promote ethical tourism is more important than ever at a time when Bali is struggling with overtourism.

As the article by Coconuts Bali above has shown, outrageous tourist behaviour are by no means a new phenomenon on the island.

However, in the last few years, Bali seems to be at a crossroads, as more and more digital nomads have settled long-term on the island—most of them not having sufficient understanding about local cultures and law. A recent Australian Financial Review (AFR) article highlights how this influx of foreign settlers have increased the prevalence of violations against law and cultural customs.

She also pointed out to the possible cause of overtourism: “tourism is all we know. We were not taught to spend 50 percent of our time in agriculture and 50 percent taking care of our foreign guests.” According to the AFR article, tourism contributes 60 percent to Bali’s gross domestic product (GDP) and absorbs 20 percent of the local workforce.

When foreigners start to illegally offer services like tour guide packages or motorbike lessons, as has been reported by several media outlets recently, the impact on locals will surely be devastating. Not to mention the increase of rental prices, which have forced so many locals and foreigners alike out of their accommodations.

To deal effectively with this new challenge, Niluh has come up with several strategies. The first one, is creating a guidebook for tourism in Bali, which clearly explains the do’s and the don’ts for tourists whilst they are here. Big banners stating these do’s and don’ts will also be placed in the Ngurah Rai International airport.

In terms of foreigners misusing their visa to work illegally in the island, Niluh suggested that we learn from the work permit policies of other countries like the United States or Australia.

“It’s not that I’m anti-foreigner. The only thing I ask the foreigners who live here is, on a bare minimum, please at least follow the rules just like us, in terms of your documents, tax payments, and remunerations. Also, you’re welcome to live in the island as long as you truly love the island and give back to the society and community,” she added.

Furthermore, empowering local small-and-medium enterprises through decentralisation can also be key to counter the negative effects of overtourism. She suggested that each village could have its own handicrafts production centre, with its own social media account, through which people could report their activities daily.

2023’s first edition of Change Makers at Indus Restaurant on Thursday, 13 April 2023. (UWRF/Yogi Pradana)