07 September 2009

Trampling Through Bali - The Catch 22 of Tourism

We visit the places that stroke our imaginations only to find out that thousands of people have shared our dreams and now our dream is ruined. We read about a near deserted perfect beach in our two year old Lonely Planet and when we arrive it is teeming with European hippies and British families. We stroll down country lanes and are harassed to buy trinkets or take transport to the point that we feel harried and annoyed. Idyllic little islands are now covered in the plastics and trash necessary to keep young travelers in the comfort that they demand, and the beaches are murky with the sewage of a thousand extra people per night.

It is the communities that have the most tourism that are the wealthiest, but in order to gain that higher standard of living they also must give up their traditional way of life. Out go the local restaurants and green areas, in comes the Billabong shop and the bars hosting foam parties. On the other hand, it is easy for us to gripe about the loss of “authentic experiences” when we get to go home with full bellies to our sleek modern homes in the West. If tourism equals money, which in turn equals a better life, they want it at almost any environmental cost.

On the Perama bus from Seminyak to Candidasa yesterday I was privy to a variety of outrageously ignorant conversations. A young tennis playing stud from London told a wide eyed German girl that if “you go to South America, they've never seen blonde hair and on the bus they will cut off your ponytail to keep it! Seriously!” They then went on to discuss how gross squat toilets are. A Scandinavian dude dressed like a member of Blink 182 with a wide brimmed cap and neck tattoos exclaimed how happy he was to finally “get to the Gilis so I can get fucking wasted.”

Most disturbing were the women seated behind me – at first glance they seemed like nice typical middle-aged crystal gazers, perhaps headed to the beach for some yoga or meditation. “Ugh, I know. They way that they try to sell you things is disgusting. Don't they know that it annoys us? People will stop coming, you know. It is shameful how they carry on...”

Those women were lucky that I hadn't had a glass of wine and wasn't in a pub rather than drinking warm water trapped on a bus with them. See, if circumstances had been different, I would have been quick to call them out, maybe mention that the mere sight of the wads of cash we carry, the exorbitant sums we waste on Western food, the casual way we overpay for just about everything – it must make locals mad.

Well, not necessarily mad, but it would certainly make them think. We barge into areas like Bali waving handfuls of US dollars and demand a perfect holiday while staying at hotels and eating at restaurants owned by foreign investors or the local elite. But when the people who actually live there get uppity enough to start trying to get a piece of the pie we get annoyed. We call them shameless.

I'm willing to bet that they don't give a damn what we think. Taking no for an answer when selling keychains sounds well and good, but remember that the money that is worth practically nothing to us (they know what the conversion is and that we are paying pennies for things that cost dollars at home) can literally feed their family for the day. Maybe Grandma can rest instead of working. Their kids can go to school. And the more they sell, the more of those silly pieces of paper practically falling out of our wallets they can get, the happier and healthier their lives will be. If this was the case for you, would you care about annoying some washed up hippie's delicate sensibilities by pressuring them to buy a magnet?

Tourism drags ancient cultures from their traditions and disrupts the way of life and the environment, yes (there are responsible ways around this, but from what I've seen over the past year those are mostly a myth unless you have a lot of money....) but it also puts food on the table for people who might go without otherwise. While it's well and good to patronizingly dream that people are completely sustained by their quaint customs and should be willing to stay poor in order to keep them exactly as they have been for centuries that's just not going to happen. Especially if you are one of the willing masses who want to pay to see those customs in action. See what I mean? We could go around in circles forever. If we go, we ruin it. If we don't, people lose jobs. What is better?

It boils down to this - locals want the things that we have, both luxury items and basics such as our educations – and they are willing to piss you off to earn them, one keychain at a time.


AdventureRob said...

It does seem to be one of those no-win situations whatever the decision is, can't we all just get along? :)

Katie said...

Your post ties in directly to a very interesting article that I read last night about an indigenous group here in Argentina that is slowly succumbing to tourism and the modern way of life. These people's lives are changing so radically that many of them feel that suicide is their only option (I hope this doesn't hit too close to home in light of your post about Heppy's brother).

Here's the article if you'd like to read it: http://www.theargentimes.com/feature/guarani-suicide-/

Recessionista Genie said...

So true. It seems like many American tourists see foreign countries as the Disneyland versions of them... set up expressly for our entertainment and customer-service gratification. I'll tell you what spoiled Rome for me... not the guy pushing me to buy a rose for a dollar at the Pantheon, but the rich-hippie students in my neighborhood who were so consistently rude and obnoxious that I had to lie and pretend I was German or Canadian to get ANY service from the fed-up shopkeepers in my neighborhood. Hospitality is important, sure, but more important is being a good guest in a place where you weren't even invited. The whole world isn't our colonial playground.

Anonymous said...

I remember the beach in Bali.

My parents had visited there over twenty years before we visited as a family, and remember when it was a small, beautiful, and clean island.

When we arrived on the island it was swimming with so much trash that we could not even swim in the waters. The shopping was great, but the beaches need to be cleaned.

We also remember how the whole island was depressed because of the nightclub bomibing. The average person was suffering because of the terrorists.

Overall it was such a sad situation, that made you pitty the island's people.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this particular post very much.
Unfortuneatly the ignorant conversations you overheard don't happen only on buses in other countries.
I heard the same sorts of things while standing in line to get into the Art Institute in Chicago. There were a few homeless people hawking their wares along the block-long line, and boys playing drums on 5 gallon buckets for cash donations (the music was impressive, by the way).

My family is not wealthy by american standards in the least. We scrape & save for everything we have & everything we hope for in the future. My husband & I understood all too well that those people selling papers, keychains, etc., could easily be one of us.
Something I think many wealthy Americans forget - a bad turn of luck or circumstance can happen to any one of us.

Anonymous said...

I can't stand the rich tourism. People who spend thousands of dollars on a fancy hotel and foreign restaurants when they could sleep in a decent hostel and eat in local markets for less than half the price just make no sense to me. What's the point of travelling if you're only recreating the environment you have at home?

Paulina said...

I just want to mention that your blog is one of my favorites. Your writing is pretty freakin' impeccable, and a true pleasure to read!

I could not agree more with what you are saying about the catch 22 of traveling. It may seem to be frustrating, or feel like a dead end. But honestly, having a conversation about it is a true step towards progress.

Thanks again!
Oh, and PS: I am Latin American and at least half of my family is blonde (I am a bottle blonde, so I don't count)
but none of my aunts have had their pony tails "stolen" haha
that dude sounds like a douch.

PPS: people tell me all the time I don't "look" latin american....they couldn't be more off....I mean really...it's like a rainbow in that continent....

ok, enough rambling on my part.....

Kosmopolight said...

Sigh.....yes, I think we've all overheard our fair share of ignorant conversations on our travels. But, hey, at least these people are getting out there -- even if it's just to the more touristy places for now. Maybe, just maybe, if they keep traveling, they'll gain a little perspective. We can all hope!

Stuart said...

Good piece -- and sadly you could change the place name to just about any semi-popular island in Southeast Asia and your points would remain very valid.

Though on your point regarding the environment, you'll be having a lot less of an impact staying in a $2 losmen than a $750/night villa -- even if the latter does have the right lightbulbs ... the "need cash to tread lightly" argument is a bit of a myth in my opinion.

Good piece!

Jan said...

Sorry, it's simply not true that the backpackers who turn every penny and always eat one dollar dishes are better for a country than 750 dollar per night tourists. even with a foreign investor there is much more money staying in the country per night than a tight backpacker spends in a week.
the luxury place has a demand for qualified workers, pais them good wages, leaves money in the supply chain to run the business and over all brings much more structure into a country.
you can blame local authorities for the lack of regulations regarding waste water and building regulations, but you can't blame a person who stays in a 750 dollar villa.

this is a typical "we safe the world by not spending our money" attitude that is just wrong. Destroying the culture? i can only see that the flair of the poor development country gets lost. thats not what i call culture. ask a local what they prefer. at the end it's their country to live in and not our entertainment as development country backpacker tourists.

look at the west, we destroyed a lot of "culture" a long time ago. but just look at the music and art and everything we got right now. people need to have a standard of living to be able to produce culture. you can't make art when you have to be on the rice field from sunrise to sunset.

thats the difference between culture and the flair of a poor country.

Violet Dear said...

You guys both definitely have good points! But in my experience in Asia the large hotels are all owned by foreign companies and pay the workers a pittance - very little profit trickles down. The lavish meals, bottle of wine and luxury spas are not really helping the local economy and are certainly polluting the environs.

The need cash to tread lightly thing was an overreaching statement on my part - I was mostly thinking of eco-tours and such that are twice the usual price - in Kerala an eco friendly houseboat is literally three times the price. But you are right, Stuart - it is possible to be eco-conscious on a budget.