How to Make Tourists and Expats Disappear from BaliJune 13, 2010
It’s always interesting to talk to new visitors to Bali and glean their first impressions. I am somewhat enamoured of the place myself – despite its flaws – so it always comes as a mild shock to speak to someone who has their head screwed on a little tighter than mine, someone perhaps less prone to falling for the ‘paradise’ tag promoted by tourism authorities. In the last six months, I have heard increasing numbers of grumbles from people who have been disappointed with their Bali experience. The latest such disaffected person is someone who has lived in various locations in South-East Asia. This was his first visit to Bali.
When asked the inevitable question: “What do you think of Bali?”, his response was measured, but honest. He said: “Well, it’s not as beautiful as advertised …” My reaction was to bristle. I felt mildly insulted, and protective towards this island I have come to love. I thought to myself , oh great – here is a recent blow-in who is judging the place after 2 days. How dare he! But of course, a few moments’ reflection showed that he was right. Bali isn’t as beautiful as advertised. No place is. The image portrayed to the outside world is a mash-up – a synthesis of the best bits to be found all over the island. No-one promoting Bali mentions the open drains, the rubbish, the deadly traffic or frustrating inefficiencies of the arrivals hall at the airport. The reality is that there is good and bad to be found in any place, but too much bad puts tourists off.
He went on to say: “It’s more expensive than advertised”. I was compelled to agree. For a visitor, and certainly for an expat, Bali can be expensive, and it is becoming more so. Just how expensive is a question of personal choices. Do you choose to eat in expensive restaurants targeting tourists and “rich” expats, or in a cheap and cheerful warung? Do you choose to drink imported, exorbitantly-taxed wine and spirits, or limit yourself to Bintang? Do you choose to stay in a luxury villa, or find more humble accommodation? It’s a balancing act here between what the Government and local providers think that ‘pampered’ Westerners want, and what they need. Unfortunately, when tourists don’t get want they want from a destination, they don’t return.
His initial responses to Bali are, in themselves, just valid opinions. What worries me is that more and more tourists are expressing similar opinions, often on-line, and often to a large audience of potential new travellers. With so much competition from other nearby destinations, what will happen to Bali’s attractiveness as a destination if this trend accelerates?
It’s not just short-term visitors who are becoming wary of Tourist Board spin either. Based on emails received recently, long-term expats, many of whom contribute huge amounts of money and expertise to Bali, are starting to leave the island. They are saying that conditions here are “not tolerable anymore”, citing “the high cost of imported food and wine”, the “high cost for internet access” and the increasingly hostile attitude of the government towards expats. One reader even believes that there is a deliberate policy to make life difficult for expats. He asks: “… is this what the politicians in Jakarta, especially the Islamic movement, had planned when these drastic price increases were made? Is it their plan to drive the Westerners out in order to free the Indonesian people from Western influence?”
I can’t answer that. Maybe someone in Jakarta can. But I do know that punitive alcohol and food duties are driving people away. I do know that new rules – or new implementation of existing rules – have made it impossible for arriving expats to bring in their personal effects without hitting ludicrous official snags. A friend had to have all of her effects shipped back to Australia because “the rules have changed” while the goods were in transit. Others can’t pick up their goods because they don’t yet have a KITAS. Still others are being charged exorbitant and arbitrary “duty” far in excess of the official rate.
I do know that a friend’s son, enrolled in a school here, is now being denied a Student KITAS because, according to an official, “we are no longer happy about issuing a Student KITAS to people under 18”. What? Schools here can’t enrol foreign students without a KITAS. If this is a new policy, it means that hundreds of expat families with student children will have to leave the country, or leave their children unschooled. I also know that a number of foreign teachers have recently had their KITAS extensions refused, which means they can’t work, or even stay in the country. I guess that will solve the emerging problem of too many teachers after the kids have all been kicked out, right?
So what is going on? I am not a conspiracy theorist, but things just aren’t adding up. Why are we being faced with a raft of strange rules and regulations aimed directly at the heart of Bali’s tourism industry and its expat community? Why is the regional Bali government sitting back and saying nothing when the economy of Bali is being threatened in this way? Make no mistake – alienate the tourists, marginalise the expats, and Bali loses the cornerstone of its economy. And Bali can not afford that.
Enlighten me someone. Tell me that this current regimen of crazy duties and intransigent new rules and policies is just a confluence of unrelated official stupidities. Tell me it’s not an orchestrated anti-Western campaign. But if it is, at least be honest about it. I will sadly accept that I am no longer welcome as a guest in your country and go somewhere more hospitable.