I suddenly stop mid step. I’m not expecting this at all. First comes excitement, but dread quickly settles in. I am looking at the largest construction project on Gili Air: the future home of Lombok Villas, a massive three story complex of rooms, shops, restaurants and concrete. I’m not one for baseball but the famous ‘Field Of Dreams’ line repeats in my head: “if you build it, they will come”. After nearly two weeks of Gili Islands travel, the islands off Bali’s east coast, or Lombok’s west coast depending which way you travel, it really sunk in: the Gili Islands are magical, but this particular type of magic may not be lasting for long.

My conversations with local shop keepers, guest house owners and restaurant servers continued to hit on the same theme. Most were grateful for the economic opportunity that tourism development has brought yet fully aware that it comes at a cost, most notably to mother nature. Over the past two years construction on the Gili Islands (Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno) has accelerated – the western shore of Gili Trawangan (Gili T to locals) once offering raw beaches with sunset views and the odd bar is now nearly fully developed. “Wow, none of this was here a year and a half ago” a fellow traveler remarked to me as she looked down the stretch of restaurants on Sunset Beach.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili Air beach soccer

The days of cheap backpacker joints overflowing onto the beach, a lone ATM, and lack of wifi are giving way to infinity pools, shops that take credit and debit, and multi-story luxury villas. The problem – and trust me, it takes a lot for me to find a problem with infinity pools – is that the islands’ core infrastructure cannot sustain such expansion. Power outages occurred almost daily in one area or another during my stay. Despite the diligence of several restaurants and resort staff that comb the beaches daily, trash is mounting.

As I write this from my private lumbung cottage on the southwest shore of Gili Air (yes, I realize I’m a hypocrite) the crashing waves of the ocean are being drowned out by the buzzing of saws. My resort, Mola2, is literally growing during my stay with two-thirds of the property open for visitors now and another ten+ cottages and rooms being constructed mere meters away that will open within the next two months.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili Air construction

I’m not saying don’t visit the Gilis – convincing my sister to make the trip on her next work break is my current priority – I’m just acknowledging that experiences on the islands are changing. On the most practical level, reviews, photos, and stories from years past carry less weight. And with that admission I’ve either just put myself out of a career as a travel writer or cemented the need for quarterly visits to ensure this piece is up to date.

Although I may not agree with the pace of growth on the islands, particularly amongst the construction madness, there are some things that are heading in the right direction, for the time being at least. If you’re envisioning a trip to Bali’s Gili Islands, I strongly advise you go soon.


Gili Islands Travel: Why Visit Now

Charming homestays

Yes, luxury resorts from international hospitality companies are increasing in number, but so too are quaint homestays. Not simply a room in a family’s home, most are well built mini cottages complete with out-of-this-world breakfasts served on your private balcony each morning. Little Elephant on Gili T has two guest cottages (with a third and final unit to be complete by November), offers free bike use, and is conveniently located within 300 meters of the “main strip” and night market. At 300k IDR (~$23USD) per night during mid-season it’s a bargain. Three Little Birds and Resota Twins also get top marks.

On Gili Air, JM Homestay is within 200 meters of the northeast shore close to a turtle snorkeling site and boasts impressively designed outdoor washrooms. There are five units to choose from starting at just 350k IDR (~$26USD) per night. If you’re a pizza junkie consider the bed & breakfast Classico Italianowhich is adjacent to the super popular (and delicious!) Italian restaurant of the same name. It’s located closer to the centre of the island.

Gili Islands Travel - Mola resort Gili Air

Healthy local food

Don’t get me wrong, there are copious amounts of beach bars and restaurants that for some reason feel compelled to offer chicken cordon bleu, carbonara pasta or nachos to appease a very western palate. However, I was pleased to see that some of the most popular restaurants are bucking the trend. Near the harbor on Gili Air, Coffee & Thyme is a stunning eclectically decorated café featuring various local, organic and healthful options from super smoothies to vegetarian wraps. Less than 500 meters away Mowies menu includes fresh tuna sashimi, sandwiches with homemade almond beetroot paté, and raw vegan cakes for dessert.

Gili Islands Travel - Mowies burger

Scallywags, perhaps the highest end dining option with locations on both Gili Air and Gili T, is always packed and has one of the most impressive nightly BBQ offerings I’ve ever seen – in fact they often run out of dishes and apologize that their ‘made from scratch’ philosophy means some things take a bit longer in the kitchen. They only use fresh water in preparation of food and update their menu seasonally. Thankfully, even the most mundane of restaurants offer affordable freshly squeezed fruit juices and smoothies so you have no excuse not to reach your four to six servings of fruits daily.

Gili Islands Travel - Classico Italiano Gili Air

No motorized vehicles

The claim to fame of the Gili Islands is that no cars or noisy motorcycles are allowed. Horse carts are the only mode of transport for those with massive amounts of luggage, although bicycles and good ‘ol walking are the most prevalent for locals and tourists alike. Practically speaking it means that it may take you a while to get somewhere on the island, but what’s the rush – you’re on vacation so embrace it! Walking at a leisurely pace and allowing for the odd Bintang pit stop, it will under take three hours to circumnavigate Gili T, the largest of the three islands.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili Air transportation

Responsible diving

There are a multitude of dive shops and resorts across all three islands. I’ve never seen so many PADI 5 STAR certified operations in my life. The respect they have for the reef and manner in which they conduct their dives was truly impressive for someone who has been diving in nine+ countries. The team at Trawangan Dive on Gili T, and Blue Marlin Dive on Gili Air were particularly professional and accommodating, and I had a pleasure diving with both.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili T diving turtle


Everyone loves a good photo op right? There are no less than five water swings and even an over water hammock along Sunset Beach on Gili T, with my favourite just down from Malibu Beach Club. Not to be outdone, Gili Air has its own double swing and nearby double hammock set in front of Lucy’s Bar & Restaurant, with signs noting that donations for photography are collected to benefit the local school. Although the lines just before sunset can get 10-20 people deep on both islands, everyone is respectful and orderly, and solo travelers are easily able to get a few pics snapped by a passerby.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili T swing

Respect for local culture

There are mosques on all the three islands and they broadcast the morning prayers irrespective of what some nearby hungover tourists may prefer. I love the fact that there are frequent reminders to cover up while in the villages, nudity on the beaches is frowned upon, and several operators adjust their schedule on Friday afternoons to accommodate staff prayers. Beyond being a level headed traveler who exhibits no ‘bro’ attributes, try to learn a few local phrases and always travel with a smile. It’s amazing how far it will get you. A few phrases to help you along:

Hello – Halo

Thank you – Terima kasih (“tray – mak – ahh – see”)

Have a nice day – Semoga harimu menyenangkan (“semoga hairy moo men yan an gan”)

Gili Islands Travel - Gili Air sunset

Gili Islands Travel: Tips for Traveling Responsibly

(also applicable everywhere around the world)

Respect water

You can’t drink the local tap water on the Gili Islands, or most tropical islands for that matter. Bringing your own water bottle and having it refilled from a proper filtered source at your accommodation is eco and budget friendly. There is a massive garbage issue on the Gili Islands and the notion of recycling isn’t really where it needs to be, so using as little plastic as possible helps the environment big time.

Don’t be high maintenance

Water and power are in short supply. If you’re used to taking multiple long showers in a day and expect continually fresh fluffy linens, consider checking your tiara at the door. Although it is possible to run the air conditioning at most accommodations all day while you’re out of the room (unfortunately they have yet to adopt those swipe card systems yet), it’s really not necessary and puts a bigger burden on the power grid.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili T Malibu Beach Club

Use eco-friendly sunblock

Not only will your skin thank you but the oceans will too. Apparently six to fourteen thousand tons of sunscreen washes off people into the ocean each year. The worst ingredient culprit is oxybenzone, which contributes to coral bleaching in even minimal amounts. Aerosol sunscreens are even worse so think format as well as ingredients next time your shopping for sun block. Aubery Organics, All Terrain, All Good, Badger and ECO logical are among the most widely available, planet friendly brands available in Canada and the US.

Tip fairly

Around the world tipping norms vary and as responsible travelers we should strive to match the local norms. On Gili T several of the restaurants have added a compulsory 10% service charge, while others on Gili Air recommend 5%. I respect travelling on a ‘budget’ but that doesn’t mean you have to be a tight ass about it. The annual average income in Indonesia is 3 million IDR, equivalent to $3,000 USD. Tipping an extra $1 or $2 for a meal and service you enjoyed won’t bankrupt you, but will mean a lot to your server.

Gili Islands Travel - Gili T 1674 restaurant

Do your homework

The power of Google people! I’m not saying you should research your trip to death – “planning paralysis” is a real affliction. However, a bit of back checking into the practices of your guesthouse, resort, or tour operator can shed some light on amazing operations that treat the planet and their staff fairly. Previously mentioned Blue Marlin Dive on Gili Air uses a progressive bio tank to help with water treatment while Trawangan Dive offers extensive educational programs on Biorock® technology and reef restoration. Lutwala Dive on the north shore of Gili T has a partnership with local non-profit organization Cats of Gili, to create an animal hospital to save cats on the island. Outside of the Gili Islands, I absolutely adore Grasshopper Adventures, a cycling company with operations throughout southeast Asia that promotes local partners and pays fair wages to local guides, who truly are excellent, whether you opt for a half day stint or week long trek with the company.

Have you had your own Gili Islands travel? Have any other tips or perspectives on the islands?

Gili Islands Travel photos by Madeline Burch, slider courtesy of Flickr; SamStef

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Madeline Burch

Madeline was born and raised in Toronto Canada, educated in marketing, and has worked in brand management and the alcohol industry for nearly a decade. In search of great drinks, stories and photos, she has travelled to South East Asia multiple times including a recent eight month stint based in Vietnam. From luxe travel to volunteer missions, she’s interested in it all.

Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experiences. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time and energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.


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