On the Indonesian resort island of Bali, building height is measured by coconut trees.
Anything taller could anger the Gods the Hindu locals believe inhabit the island. So plans to renovate a decades old hotel overlooking a 16th-century temple and turn it into a bigger six-star resort, complete with a tower and upgraded golf course, are causing some anxiety.
It will be known as the Trump International Hotel and Tower Bali. Donald Trump’s company has paired with an Indonesian tycoon to build what they say will be the largest resort on the island. With construction targeted to start in early 2018, it risks making the new U.S. president a lightning rod for local ire over the project even as he seeks to divorce himself from his sprawling business empire.
“I would strongly recommend against any new developments that impact the temple,” said I Gusti Ngurah Sudiana, the local chief of Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia, the country’s peak Hindu organization. “These things are sensitive in Bali. The Balinese don’t tend to speak up, but these things related to the sacredness of the temple are very sensitive, only the enforcement is too weak.’’
The Trump Organization says the hotel and tower will offer views of the Indian Ocean and Tanah Lot temple and bring “a new level” of luxury to Bali. The project cements ties between Trump’s family and MNC Group founder Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who was on the guest list for Trump’s inauguration in Washington, DC. and has touted his friendship with Trump’s children. Tanoesoedibjo has his own political party in Indonesia.
The renovated resort will be managed by Trump Hotels, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization said by e-mail. It is one of two in the works under their partnership, which will cost MNC up to $1 billion.
With the new hotel still in the design phase, locals say gossip about how it will look makes them uneasy. Some Hindu devotees worry about the references in promotional material to the tower. MNC has said its height is not yet determined.
From the lobby of the current resort, guests can look out to Tanah Lot, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site perched precariously on an offshore rock, said to have been built as a shrine by a traveler who founded a Hindu priesthood in Bali. While the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, more than 80 percent of Balinese identify as Hindu.
Locals have also heard the hotel will be bigger and could require the purchase of nearby farm land. Made Sumawa, ethnic head of the village that includes the hotel, said there is a standing offer from MNC to buy land within a certain perimeter of the existing Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort.
While parts of Bali are bustling with hotels, shops, bars and massage parlors, the current resort sits among rice paddies on the west of the island, with modest homes nearby. MNC Land Vice President Budi Rustanto said in a phone interview the resort area would be expanded from 106 to 140 hectares (346 acres), but he did not say how much extra land might need to be bought.
Kadek Sudiasi, 42, has lived to the east of the resort for more than 40 years and says he won’t sell his paddy fields to MNC, no matter the price.
“It’s the way of rich people to do whatever they want and to offer money to smooth the way for themselves,” he said, hunched over a recently harvested field to turn over mulch with his bare hands. “I plan to buy more land to give to my children instead of selling. Money you can make again, but land is finite, let alone fertile land.”
Tabanan regency, where the resort is located, is known as Bali’s rice depot due to the expanse of terraced paddy fields built into its hills. The locals use a system for irrigation and cooperative water-sharing structure called subak that dates back to the 9th century, to ensure rice can be cultivated on both flat land and hillsides.
Speaking at his residence in Jakarta earlier this month, Tanoesoedibjo said there had been issues with locals over the existing property before he bought it two years ago.
“When they started the project in the 90s, yeah, it’s because the development was too close to the temple, that’s what I heard,’’ he said. There is “now nothing to be worried about.”
Nengah Santhi grows rice on a small plot near the hotel. In her 40s, her son works at the resort in customer service. She doesn’t particularly care about Trump’s political views, but she would like clarity on how much more land the renovated hotel will absorb.
“When he comes to our island, then I will pay attention,” she said. “If he asks me to sell my land then of course I will say no, this is my land, I grow my rice here and later my son will grow rice here.”
The local Hindu group also has questions over plans for a new golf course, potentially with one designed by Phil Mickelson’s company. The eastern side of the current course surrounds a small temple set on black volcanic sand. Local regulations forbid buildings within a certain perimeter of temples. The rules vary according to the status of the sacred site.
“A golf course is an open space, so according to government regulations, it’s in line,” said the Hindu association’s Sudiana of the current course. “But a golf course isn’t a forest and it isn’t nature so it conflicts with the philosophy of upholding the temple’s sacredness.”
For some locals, the planned redevelopment creates mixed emotions. Tourism matters to Bali. While the statistics office doesn’t break the figures down, accommodation and food and beverages were the biggest component of its gross domestic product in the third quarter, around 23 percent.
Still, I Gede Pasek Suardika, a member of Indonesia’s regional representative council and deputy chairman of the federal government-aligned Hanura party, said there had been opposition to previous efforts to further develop the area. Tanoesoedibjo left Hanura after a failed bid in 2014 to become Indonesia’s vice president.
“To my knowledge, that area is already under greenbelt restrictions and can’t be freely developed because it received backlash from the locals previously, so what can be developed is only limited to what was already agreed on before,” Suardika said.
Ida Bagus Wiratmaja, head of the local planning and development board, has concerns. “They must not exceed the height of a coconut tree, or a maximum of 15 meters,’’ he said, and “must pay attention to sanctuaries and places of worship’’.
Nirwana resort has submitted a request for a new permit to accommodate its proposed expansion, as the one issued in 1994 would no longer be valid, Wiratmaja said on Tuesday, adding his office has yet to approve the new permit.
Ethnic village head Sumawa said business that brings income and improves people’s lives is welcome, but only if what is built takes the Balinese culture into account. “If he comes here then he needs to follow our way of life,’’ Sumawa said, referring to Trump.
“If he forces his bling bling decoration here then it just won’t work. If he tries to force his style upon us then of course we will give recommendation against it.”