Through the Looking Glass:  Bali and the Ugly Side of Tourism

Bali and the Ugly Side of Tourism

By Farish A. Noor

Recent reports in the Australian press about the conduct of Australian tourists in Bali would suggest that the uglier side of mass tourism has yet to be addressed.  Apparently Australian tourists in Bali today feel they have the right to stop Indonesians who happen to be carrying bags or other items that they suspect may conceal explosive devices. A recent report in the Australian newspaper The Age even recorded an incident when an Australian tourist shouted at some local Balinese who stood too close to him, culminating in the cry “Get out of here- you are Indonesians! You dont belong here!” Well, if the Indonesians dont belong in their own country,
then who does? The Australian tourists who come in droves, patronise the clubs and bars, and by doing so now feel that they own the island?

If these eyewitness accounts are to be believed, it would appear that the Australians who continue to visit the Indonesian island of Bali are growing ever more assertive in their claims on the island, raising the question:  ‘Does Bali belong to the Australians now?’

Before this writer is accused of anti-Australian bias or insensitivity to the plight of those unfortunate victims of the bombings in Bali, allow me to state that this is not a critique of Australians or Westerners in general.

Rather, the time has come to question the unstated logic of mass tourism and consumerism in the globalised world we live in today, and how tourism can distort the daily political and economic realities of societies in the developing world that depend of foreign revenue earnings through the tourist industry.

We are now familiar with the images of weeping Australians who visited the site of the Bali bombings of 2002. With a bitter twist the dastardly actions of the alleged suicide bombers gave the right-wing government of Australia the pretext and justification to use this singular event as a platform for Australia’s own declared ‘war on terror’ and further enhanced its standing as Washington’s ‘sheriff’ in Asia, to help the USA police and patrol the turbulent ASEAN region in President Bush’s name.  The latest bombing in Bali has merely helped the government of Australia to re-assert this exclusive claim, to the detriment of the pride and sovereignty of its other Asian neighbors.

Australia’s claim to be the policeman of Asia and the fact that Australian tourists flock to places like Bali and have begun to make claims on the island are in no way accidental or unconnected. Mass tourism in the present day is only possible when there exist differentials of wealth and power between states, where the meager income of an ordinary working-class Australian is worth millions of Rupiah in neighbouring Indonesia. For the poorest Australian who survives on the lower ranks of his own society, a trip to Bali is to be transported to another world where even the
working-class labourer can play at being a lord - an Orientalist fantasy lubricated by the exchange of much needed cash and softened by the crass popular entertainment that is provided as part of the fantasy package.

This is the other side of mass tourism today which politically correct liberals refuse to address: The fact remains that the centres of mass tourism in Southeast Asia today - be it Phuket and the southern beaches of Thailand, Bali and the island resorts of Indonesia or the flesh pots of
Manila - are made to cater to the pleabean (and let us be honest here, vulgar and pedestrian) tastes of white, working class tourists from abroad. Places like Bali may have been tarted up as centres of traditional culture for the sake of tourism campaigns, but anyone who lives in Southeast Asia knows that the reason that tourists go to Bali are the sex, alcohol, drugs and cheap living it offers.

The Australian tourists who have been flying to Bali could not be generally described as afficionados of Indonesian culture or history- How much Indonesian history and culture can one imbibe in a club crowded with hundreds of sweaty dancing bodies, girating to the trashy tunes of Kylie Minogue and the other cultural ambassadors of Australia? High brow tourism this certainly ain’t, and it will never be. Places like Bali, Phuket, et al were always insulated enclaves for (relatively richer) foreigners with money to spend and time to kill. The ones who did the grovelling and serving were inevitably the locals .  Mass tourism disrupts and distorts social and
inter-cultural relations by presenting the worst face of both societies to each other: the poorest and neediest Indonesians and low-brow Australian tourists who are only there for a good time and to trash up the place if and when they feel like. Need we be reminded that the reason why there were so many Western tourist victims during the first bombing in Bali was that the local Indonesians could not afford to go to such clubs and could only serve as waiters there? (A more disturbing account of this story, often repeated by the Balinese themselves, was that the clubs destroyed during the first Bali bombing operated on an undeclared ‘whites-only’ policy.)

The Bali bombings have brought our attention back to Bali again, but for all the wrong reasons. We are asked to join in the lamentation of the Australians and other Western tourists over the loss of their idylic tourist paradise. But it should never be forgotten that this cheap paradise was
bought and paid for by those whose states exercised aggressive foreign policies and whose relative wealth in Bali was ensured by an unequal global trading system in the first place. Under these circumstances, the loutish and boorish behaviour of Australian tourists in Bali today is not only unexpected but also understandable. Mass tourism today is as much a part of the globalisation process as Australian soldiers patrolling territories of the ASEAN region.