Overtourism & "Exploitourism" in Bali and Java - how my favorite destination turned sulfuric

Sunrise on Mt. Baur  Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

Sunrise on Mt. Baur

Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

When I visited the island of Bali for the first time, it started as a week of mischief and debauchery to celebrate a friends birthday and turned into one of the best vacations of my life when I decided to check myself into One World Retreats Ubud. Exhausted and not feeling even a little bit relaxed, I decided to trade in the booze and late nights for green juice and early morning yoga in Ubud. Unbeknownst to me, the retreat coincided with Nipi - Balinese New Years where the entire island practices silence to camouflage themselves from the spirits flying overhead - as they slowly make their way to cursed Australia.

The experience of being spiritually attuned with the Balinese people, conscious abstinence from drugs and alcohol and my first real foray into yoga culminated in a deeply meditative journaling session that helped define the next 18 months of my life. I decided then to start my own business. I decided to start taking yoga classes regularly. I decided to take care of my body with intention.

When the opportunity came to fly to revisit Bali, I wanted to renew my vows to myself in the place where I had started to define the man I wanted to be in life.

There were over 400 people who climbed this mountain to catch the sunrise.  Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

There were over 400 people who climbed this mountain to catch the sunrise.

Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

But, the five days I spent on the island was far from what I expected…

Landing at midnight, my travel companion, Joe, and I decided that we would go straight up a Mount Batur to catch the sunrise. I expected it to be a tough hike that would reward us with beautiful views of the island landscape, which we got. What I didn’t anticipate were the droves of unprepared tourists, hiking in flip-flops, without proper night gear, and causing tremendous traffic both up and down the mountain. I wish I could speak more languages so I could tell these idiots to get the proper gear before they hurt themselves or someone else on the climb.

On the second day, we decided to explore the “blue fire” on Java Island. Enticed by the photos he saw online and a documentary he watched as a kid, Joe insisted that we go. After another tough hike, this one starting at 1 am, we reached the summit and were left with the decision to descend into the sulphuric crater of this mountain.

It’s 3 am. My body is now covered in cold sweat from the hike and near-freezing temperatures at the summit. There is a large sign that actually discourages tourists from going down because of the danger. Even though its dark, I can clearly see that the “trail” that proceeds us is not much more than a narrow path with rocks that have been stepped on a few more times than the large boulders that flank the trail. As you look down, you can see the vapors from the sulphuric gas escaping from the mountain and the flashlights of those people who have descended before us.

And yet we descended the narrow path with our flashlights and. Because “for the gram.”

On the way down, I test the limits of my hiking abilities and am completely dumbfounded by why anyone would consider this a tourist attraction. There is literally nothing attractive about this experience. We walk by an area where one tour guide points out “two people died taking a selfie here” - beautiful.

As we descended, there were miners carrying 150 pounds of sulfur up the same narrow path.  Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

As we descended, there were miners carrying 150 pounds of sulfur up the same narrow path.

Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

During our descent, we are forced to move aside for the sulfur miners who are laboriously bringing up “the devil’s gold.” These miners have to contend with dangerous conditions on a daily basis to make a living. Hiking 2 miles up, descending 900 yards into the volcano, loading 150-200 pounds of sulfur on their backs and climbing back out and down the mountain. They do this 1-2 times each day to earn a measly $10/day. Now add a few hundred ill-equipped tourists to that equation, and you have a recipe for disaster. The average lifespan of one of these miners rarely exceeds age 50.

Sulphur miner picking at the newly formed “devil’s gold”. The gas was absolutely horrendous. This miner didn’t have any facial protection.  Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

Sulphur miner picking at the newly formed “devil’s gold”. The gas was absolutely horrendous. This miner didn’t have any facial protection.

Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

When we reach the bottom of the large pit, we get a glimpse of the blue fire. Want to know what it looks like? Turn on your gas stove and voila. Joe runs around taking photos of the miners as our guide yells at people to turn off their flashlights so Joe can get a good shot. He definitely earned his pay. As I look back to see the route out, I see hundreds of headlamps descending the same steps we just took. “Is this blue fire that enticing that you’re willing to brace noxious gas, burning your lungs and stinging your eyes to tears?”

A few hundred hikers descending into the volcano to get a glimpse of the impossible working conditions.  Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

A few hundred hikers descending into the volcano to get a glimpse of the impossible working conditions.

Photo Credit: Joe Na (www.joenagraphy.com)

Then I remembered something a college professor once said to me “for those at the bottom, the only thing worse than being taken advantage of is not being taken advantage of.” It was a sad truth that became more clear as we hiked out. These guides, all ex-miners, are now able to earn a better wage guiding tourists down these steps than actually climbing them with baskets of sulfur on their backs. If it weren’t for us, they would be forced to breathe in the poisonous air through t-shirt filters instead of the gas masks they could now afford. I hated that I was complicit in the exploitation and betterment of these miners miner’s lives and working conditions.

I was hoping that by writing down my thoughts I would come to a conclusion about whether this type of tourism is good or evil; but I haven’t. While I won’t encourage other people to visit due to the inherent risk of the hike, I know that the miners who can now guide are pulling themselves out of that sulfur mine with their own bootstraps and that's a beautiful thing.

Leave a comment below if you’ve seen the Blue Fire or just share your thoughts about why this type of tourism is good or evil.