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The Gili Islands; they paved paradise

Gili Air sunset, Mt Agung, Gili Trawangan

Sunset on Gili air, with Gili Trawangan on the right and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance

The Gili Islands; they paved paradise

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, the Gili Islands; they paved paradise is a classic example of what happens to an isolated community that gets popular.

In April and May 2013 I spent some time on Gili Air. Gili Air, which along with Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno comprising the three small atolls off the northwest tip of Lombok, is great for that idyllic holiday with a very relaxed feel.

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Having observed changes to Gili Air since I first visited in 2012, I can see it is on a one way trajectory. Barely four kilometres in circumference, these island are tiny, and low, with both Gili Air and Gili Meno barely rising six metres about sea level.

Here tourists can stay in bungalows ranging from 150k a night to 1.5 million rupiahs, with everything in between.

It is somewhat reminiscent of Goa, India, in the 1980s, with an absence of rules, or anyone to police them, attracting many who need a break from rule bound Western societies.

Within certain confines of course, given that this is a Muslim culture, a fact the calls to prayer from the various mosques makes quite clear.

This simply basically means no nudity, along with a basic cultural sensitivity towards the locals, as society here is far more liberal than most Westerners would expect from a Muslim culture, and certainly, with the exception of Senggigi, way more liberal than the somewhat dour Lombok.

The Gilis seem to serve as a type of cultural Hong Kong or Las Vegas, islands that provide a release valve on the society, with apparently the Gilis being allowed free licence on most activities, provided of course that ‘what happens on Gili stays on Gili’.

Gili Air restaurant and bar Legends Bar beach lounging

Lounging on the beach is very popular

The bars that open late into the night, the freely and legally available mushrooms, the similarly available though not legal other substances whose popularity amongst locals is becoming an issue that the local community has not begun to deal with at this point.

The practice of substituting methanol in the locally sold ‘local’ spirits has been well documented, particularly in the Australian media, with a young Aussie man dying in early 2013 from methanol poisoning here while another woman was blinded after a party night.

I had a few local spirit mixes at a party while I was there and felt very somewhat poisoned the next day, so it seems to be rampant and I will only have imported spirits there in the future.

See A Drink to Die For? on the ABC wesbite

Also, the Gilis are part of Lombok which is well known for being a place where investments, in particular in land, can just disappear, but loopholes are being closed, and buyers are becoming more alert to the pitfalls, but there are many stories of lost fortunes.

So far so good, as notwithstanding these type of issues that arise, none of these problems are fatal. However, there are clouds on the horizon that nobody currently excited about selling their properties or buying the same has any appreciation of.

Currently on Gili Air there is a construction boom, as locals sell their land at hitherto unimagined prices to the Westerners seeking a slice of paradise and or a business sea change.

The locals however, have no idea what this means, similarly to the Goans who also sold out and who now long for the days of the hippies with little money and less morals, instead of the big spending party-goers who have no respect for local customs who have inundated Goa.

Pretty soon the locals will turn into employees, no longer business owners, and what this means to their lifestyle and quality of life is immense.

Already the entire Gili Air foreshore, where the locals used to come and relax by the sea, is now developed, so there is no longer any beach spot for locals to mingle, to build their community ties (an issue that has become very important in the Western post-industrial societies) each week, as had been done for many years.

As marine traffic increases, so does the damage to the coral reef, and so does the fish population decrease and so fish prices increase.

Gili Air Sunset

Even since I first went to Gili Air in August 2012, the degradation of the reef has been huge and with snorkelling and diving tourism a large tourist segment, this is unsustainable.

See more photos of Gili Air below

As tourists place pressure on boat prices, this makes it harder for locals to go about their lives. What I have noticed, having observed the same kind of thing in Byron Bay, Australia, or Bali, or any other popular tourist area where the pressure tourism places on local ecology, on local human ecology, is immense, is that many locals can no longer afford to live there in a dignified way.

As pressure builds on land prices, so does the cost of living rise, and while wages remain the same, the poor simple locals, who were a large part of the attraction to tourists, get pushed out, marginalised in their own island.

Gili Air donkeys waiting

The horse carts are so sweet

But there is the conundrum. When you have never had any money, and have always worked hard to eek out an existence, what else can you do when someone wants to buy your land at prices you could never had imagined?

If the Balinese rice grower makes $700/year working most days, and someone offers him $300,000, what can he do? The disappearance of ricefields, one of the main attractions for tourists in Bali, is not a good thing. As the local cultures get ‘eaten’ by the dollar, so does their very attractiveness to that dollar.

Clearly tourism is not all bad, but it is also not all good either, and some visionary thinking needs to be sought and asserted. Islands like the three Gilis are very vulnerable to the rapid growth of tourism as it swamps their lives.

As tourists, what can we do? Not a lot really, as paradoxically it is our very existence and the money we bring that is the problem. I guess we just have to feel gratitude for what we have while it is there, and be as graceful as possible.

Gili Air foreshore

Most Gili foreshore is occupied by restaurants

‘The Gili Islands; they paved paradise’ is something of a warning that we need to tread lightly or we will destroy what we love.

See also The Gili Islands off Lombok on this website

By Mark O’Brien 2013

Update, Nov 2016. Over the past two years changes have occurred at an almost blinding speed on Gili Air. With fresh water now being piped from Lombok, and a multiplication of the electricity available and its reliability, Gili Air has boomed.

No longer can you find the 150k rooms, with 400k now being cheap, and 1.5 million will not get you much anymore, with some hotels charging up to 10 million a night. There is now a helicopter landing pad for those whose wallets allow them to bypass the fast boat.

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