The Ugly Side of Tourism in Bali: Is Kuta Worth Visiting?

Kuta Beach is absolutely crazy.  It has been deemed by other travel bloggers as “the worst place in Bali” and “one of the most infamous beaches in Southeast Asia.”  And, in many ways, it is.  It’s akin to the spring break mecca of Cancun, Mexico, the boozy streets of New Orleans, U.S., and the notorious backpacker haunt of Koh San Road, Thailand.  Kuta Beach is the place where tourists go to throw all caution to the wind and party hard.  It’s debaucherous and raunchy and sleezy – and it shows.

Street art  - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

A stream of noisy motorbikes and drunken tourists constantly chugs down the town’s congested streets.  Armed with Bintangs, tourists stumble around in their bikinis and boardshorts, and omnipresent touts lurk in their storefronts and aggressively try to peddle their wares to passersby.  Most of Kuta’s shops sell the same crass items.  Stickers and t-shirts reading “I’m Not Gay, but $20 Is $20”, “Do It Up the Bum, Avoid Kids”, or “Wash My Cum Rag” appear to be popular items.  Oh, and the penis bottle openers are also big sellers.  It’s not pretty – in fact it’s downright appalling – but this is the ugly truth behind Bali’s number one tourist destination.

So with this in mind, is Kuta worth visiting?

Offensive stickers  - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Penis souvenirs - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for and how much tolerance you have to this type of scene.  If you’re the type of traveler who desires tranquil beaches, then perhaps you’d be better off taking a short ferry ride to the neighboring Gili Islands or Nusa Lembongan.  If Balinese temples and lush landscapes are your thing, then beeline it straight to Ubud.  But if you’re down to do some serious shopping and club hopping, or if you’re just plain curious to experience the chaos of Kuta for yourself – then why not give it a shot?

magic mushrooms

I fell into the latter group.  I’d heard so much about the infamous Kuta Beach that there was no way I wasn’t going to see what all the fuss was about.  I can completely understand and respect why many travelers opt to skip out on Kuta altogether during their vacations to Bali.  But I suppose I just have a morbid fascination with places like this.  In the past, I’ve been the traveler who defends ultra-touristy places like Koh San Raod, Ko Phi Phi, and Boracay because despite their rampant overdevelopment, cultural inauthenticity, and general sketchiness, there’s something spellbinding about them – at least for me.

For me, Kuta was no different.  While half of me was completely disturbed by what I experienced, the other part of me was intrigued by all the craziness.  Being in Kuta was a real-life case study on the ugly side of tourism.  I spent my two days in Kuta Beach just trying to blend in and observe.  While, I failed miserably at blending in I must admit that I had a blast just watching the antics of tourists and locals alike.

Hawker stall. Shopping in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Hawker stall - shopping in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

I was an obvious target for Kuta’s ubiquitous, in-your-face touts.  The words “transport”, “darling”, and “shopping” echoed in my ears the entire time.  After two days, the simple act of walking down the street got to be both frustrating and challenging.  Hawkers weren’t shy about getting in my face or grabbing my arm to lead me into their shops.  Some of the more brazen ones literally trailed behind me, reciting a list of all the stuff they wanted to sell me.  I tried my best to not make eye contact as I speed-walked away.  As I came to learn, either ignoring the touts or just politely waving them away works best.

The same goes for drunk tourists.  I learned the hard way that the second you enter into a conversation with a drunk Australian dude, you will suddenly be surrounded by ten of his loud and very drunk friends.  And like the touts, Australians are not shy about following you for blocks on end beckoning you to attend their rooftop pool party.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Relentless hawkers and belligerent tourists aside, I actually did have a good time in Kuta.  Aside from doing a lot of people watching, I spent my days wandering around the chaotic alleyways, getting lost, and uncovering hidden pieces of street art.

Street art - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Street art - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Another perk of being in Kuta is that with the rampant tourism comes lots of authentic and delicious international restaurants.  I was able to sample lots of dishes that I’ve been craving since I moved to Jakarta, most notably Mojo’s Flying Burritos which served up some damn fine tacos and burritos.  Yes, this place was so good I ate there twice!

Mojo's Flying Burritos  - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

I took walks on the beach each evening, watching the surfers and enjoying Kuta’s famous neon pink sunsets.  Despite Kuta’s annual trash phenomenon (which lasts from December until March), in November the beach is actually really clean and beautiful.  I mean there is a reason that this once tiny fishing village has turned into one of the most visited destinations in all of Indonesia.  It’s a pretty gorgeous stretch of beach.

 Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Sunset  - Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Kuta is not a destination I would ordinarily choose to vacation to.  Like I mentioned in a previous post, the only reason I went to Bali was because I needed a break from Jakarta.  Since my trip was super spur of the moment and I didn’t do any actual planning I just kind of ended up in Kuta.  But honestly it wasn’t as horrifying as I thought it was going to be.  And as I came to find out, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Kuta isn’t all that bad.  LIke it or not, if you’re traveling to Bali odds are you’re going to wind up spending at least a night or two in Kuta.  As long as you can put up with the sight of penis bottle openers and offensive bumper stickers, Kuta is an easy place to unwind and have a bit of fun.  You might feel a little dirty afterwards, but there are worse places to kill a few days.  And if you’re like me and you have an interest in seeing the darker side of tourism, then Kuta is actually a pretty fascinating place.  And for that, I’d say Kuta is worth visiting.

Have you ever been to Kuta Beach?  Do you think it’s worth checking out?  Or is it better left unseen?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

16 thoughts on “The Ugly Side of Tourism in Bali: Is Kuta Worth Visiting?

  1. This is such a great take on it. I avoided Kuta mostly because I was short on time in Indo and experience enough drunk Australians living in Australia haha, but I think I’d definitely see it if I had the time. I think if you approach it like you did, “OK – it’s bad, but I wanna see it anyways” vs “Kuta is gonna be paradise <3" you'll have a great time just witnessing all of the craziness. I can't believe people spend money on those nasty souvenirs though, hahah! Please tell me you got something?
    Chantae recently posted…Twenty-four hours in Guangzhou, China

    1. If I had limited time in Bali I would have skipped Kuta too. Ha, yeah unless you’re there to party, the drunk tourists can be a little much at times! I know a lot of tourists go to Kuta expecting paradise, and I completely understand why they hate it there. But as long as you know what to expect it’s kind of a fun place. Haha, my boyfriend jokingly asked if I would buy a penis bottle opener. I was totally going to buy one as a joke but I couldn’t bring myself to do it!!

  2. So interesting! I spent one night partying in Kuta when I was there (and that was plenty) but other than that I didn’t really experience the raunchiness and the obnoxious touts during the day like you did. I didn’t actually know it was SO over the top! At the time (this was two years ago) I probably would have put up with it–those signs remind me of the bracelets they make and sell all over Thailand, which I definitely had a little dirty collection of–but these days I don’t think I’d have as much tolerance for that kind of atmosphere. Maybe I’m getting old?
    Leah recently posted…5 Things To Know Before Traveling To Managua

    1. A good night of partying seems to be what Kuta is good for 😉 The raunchiness didn’t really bother me. But the crazily aggressive touts were pretty off putting. Ahaha, I think that’s hilarious that you had a collection of raunchy bracelets. I almost bought a penis bottle opener but in the end I felt too weird about it. I know how you feel about the getting old thing. I felt that after I was asked if I was in Kuta to celebrate my “21st”. I was like, um, maybe a decade ago…A lot of the tourists there are total babies! Though I do find it endlessly fascinating, it’s definitely not my scene.

  3. I’d say, well done Justine! It’s important to bring out the dark side of a place too. It seems to be a destination that will evoke mixed emotions in a traveler – it looks vibrant and colorful, but at the same time there’s lots of gross stuff to encounter! The kind of person I am, I am sure I will be appalled easily, but I guess travel is about different experiences, and this is just one of facets of it.
    Renuka recently posted…The ‘Orchids’ Village

    1. Thanks Renuka. I agree that I like to read about the not-so-flattering side of destinations as well as the good parts, so I figured I would just be brutally honest about what I experienced in Kuta. I’ve met so many people who expected Kuta to be a gorgeous and mellow tropical beach, and they were SHOCKED when they got there. Ha, yeah Kuta is not for the faint of heart. But even with all its raunchiness I had a good time just wandering around and watching all the craziness :)

  4. It’s nice to read a blog post about Kuta that isn’t just all bashing. I think it’s great you gave it a chance since you knew what you were getting into. And you’re totally right- it’s all about expectations. There’s still a great beach (despite trash season, which is crazy). Some of those stickers though are horrifying, but you definitely should’ve gotten a penis bottle opener!
    Rachel recently posted…A Warm Welcome to Celaya, Mexico

    1. Thanks Rachel. I know a lot of people will disagree with me and say Kuta is a hellhole but if you just take it for what it is, it can be a fun and interesting place! I couldn’t believe how nice the beach was when I was there a couple weeks ago. When I was there in February earlier this year there was a lot of garbage on the beach. Trash season is actually a real thing there! The stickers are pretty bad. Haha, I suppose I’ll have to pick up a bottle opener next time! 😉

    1. Some of the bumper stickers were so random. My favorite one just said “uterus.” Seriously, so weird! It’s hard to avoid Kuta if you’re traveling to Bali. I’ve found myself there a couple times now. It’s not a place I would choose to spend tons of time in. But, honestly, the only thing that really gets under my skin are the touts. They get really annoying after awhile! All the craziness aside, I think Kuta’s worth a visit just to take a look! Why not?

    1. I agree. I think it’s a perfectly fine place to kill some time. But because Indonesia is full of so many truly amazing destinations, Kuta would not be the place I would I choose to spend a huge chuck of time. I’ve been compiling a list of places I want to visit in Indonesia, while I’m living here for the next year. I’ve had my eye on Sulawesi, but I hadn’t heard of the Togian Islands. I’m going to look them up right now. Thanks for the suggestion Elena :)

  5. It’s great to read a thoughtful piece on tourism, and Bali sure helps illustrate the points. I feel the exact same way about so many parts of Thailand, and I keep hearing from other travellers how fast the scenes are changing in parts of the Philippines, Sri Lanka et al.
    I hope many people will read your post and become a little more responsible as world travellers. Sharing this on my social media.
    Paper Boat Sailor recently posted…Searching Jaffna for the Signs of War

    1. Thanks for the compliment! The impact of tourism on local culture can be tough to deal with. I think the one thing that bothered me the most about Kuta (and even Ubud) is the impact the tourist trade has had on a big chunk of the local population in these cities. Balinese people are seriously some of the nicest people I’ve come across during my travels. But after decades spent catering to tourists this aggressive tout culture has emerged in Bali. I am not a big fan of those touts and business owners who go about making money by harassing or being dishonest to tourists. It just seems so contradictory to the way Balinese people are. Obviously I love to travel but, as tourists, we really do need to be aware of the impact – both the good and bad – we have on the places we visit.

  6. It was so nice to read your honest opinions in a completely neutral way! For whatever reason, Bali is one the of the places in Southeast Asia that appeals to me least- whether it be because of the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ hype, or because Bali is often synonymous with drunk and obnoxious backpackers. But I agree that as long as you have an open-mind and take everything with a grain of salt, you’re probably still going to have a good time- regardless of where you are.
    Ashley recently posted…My Favourite Travel Moments from the Past Year

    1. Thanks Ashley! Bali was not a place I was excited about visiting when I first went there earlier this year. But after traveling for a month on Java, Bali was the next logical stop. I suppose I have a love-hate thing with Bali in general. Kuta and Ubud are REALLY touristy and I can’t say they’re exactly my scene, but there are aspects I like about them and I enjoyed my time in both. I agree with you that’s it’s all about making the most of where you are. Plus, I totally fell in love with the islands right off of Bali :)

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