How to Make Tourists and Expats Disappear from Bali

June 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.



  1. Good write-up. Though to be fair, tell me a destination whose beauty really lives up to the image that gets pushed out.

    I think Bali is a different destination to say others in SEAsia in that you need to “earn it”. By that I mean you need to make an effort.

    If you don’t stray further than say Kuta and Ubud, then of course you’re going to go away with the impression that Bali is an overpriced, overtouristed hellhole that’s over-run with touts and loons prowling mediocre beaches. But that is just as misleading as the images put out by the tourism mob. The truth is somewhere in between.

    Simply put, Bali doesn’t lend itself to “parachute tourism”. Thailand does.

    Totally agree tho on all the nuttiness coming out of Jakarta tho — truly nonsensical — couldn’t make this stuff up.

    • Very true about Bali being a place where, as you earn each stripe, you are rewarded with a deeper layer of understanding. The Jakarta stuff – well, I mean, I know I’m paranoid, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – it’s probably a conspiracy …

  2. The ways of Indonesian bureaucracy are indeed passing strange. I doubt it’s a conspiracy, especially by Islamists. Generally, only generals have a record of sustainable conspiracy here. Those days seem to have gone.

    What we do have is an official aparatus that is simply not up to the job. No one sensible objects to paying tax (even more tax, if it can be demonstrated that this is required). Bali’s tourism sector – and the Balinese who benefit from it – need certainty. The problem is not “the rules;” it’s the fact that they keep changing and are still capable of being evaded if enough money if proferred. That and the legislature, which for effectiveness and lack of attention and focus most closely resembles a late-empire Roman senate.

  3. While well written and thoughtful, the essence of what is written here is flawed in my opinion.

    Bali can simply not sustain the growth in tourism (all time record arrivals in 2009) or the ever increasing influx of expatriates. Neither is good for Bali in the long run, be that on her ecosystem or her economy.

    Another flaw that I read in this blog entry is the oft cited misconception that Bali needs ALL of these tourism dollars to survive economically. The fact is, it doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t if the Balinese chose to maintain their traditional life styles as opposed to adapting to western life styles.

    One of the keys in successfully balancing the need for some influx of tourist dollars with over-crowding and strains on the ecosystem is to better manage tourism on a per capita approach. For example, Japanese tourists are estimated to spend on average 3 times that of Australian tourists during their stays in Bali. Properly managed, tourist arrivals to Bali could be cut down from the 2.2 million or so in 2009 to less than half that without any loss of tourism revenue. The relief to the ecosystem as well as our roads is self evident if that were to occur. When the $25.00 VOA scheme was first announced, who can’t recall the claims made by many that this would be the death knell for tourism in Bali? Clearly, that death knell never sounded.

    An inherent flaw, a flaw with potentially disastrous consequences for Bali is gauging tourism “success” by arrival numbers. To be meaningful, success in tourism as an industry should be gauged more by revenue numbers than by the number of tourists arriving. Malaysia clearly understands this, as its advertising targets well healed tourists.

    Additionally, in order to secure Bali’s future economic growth, far more emphasis needs to be placed in sustained exports, particularly from the agricultural sector. While this is already happening, far more needs to be done in this area.

    As for this phenomenon of expat departures, this is nothing new. They have always ebbed and flowed like the tide in Bali. Far too many arrive woefully under funded or with grossly unrealistic expectations that their business plan will earn them a wonderful life here. Bali is the ultimate seductress, and all too often I have seen rational objectivity replaced with intoxicating thoughts of a life in Paradise. Another major factor which contributes to failure by pie eyed expats is their insistence on forcing their comfort zone, (western ideologies) as opposed to taking the time to learn and adapt to the Balinese way of life. One result of this has been an ever increasing build up of what I call kampung bule bule; the residence complexes now seen in alarmingly increasing numbers in areas down south. These are nothing short of expat ghettos and their result is only to further nurture disharmony and suspicion among the local Balinese population. Nothing good can or will come from those ghettos.

    No question about the ever increasing costs of virtually all goods here in Bali. There should be no surprise with this inevitable outcome which is rooted in pure economics. The more that people compete and struggle to get that piece of Bali pie, the more this reality will continue. The real issue though, an issue not often discussed, is just who’s pie is it anyway?

    • Your response is thoughtful and thought-provoking – thank you. I agree with your concerns about over-development. I believe the current rate of development is unsustainable in terms of infrastructure and resources. It is probably unconscionable in terms of the damage to local Balinese culture as well.

      I’m not convinced that all of the large spend by Japanese tourists flows into The Bali economy. It would be interesting to see what proportion of the spend is actually repatriated to Japanese-controlled accommodation, transport and retail sectors for a more accurate picture of net benefit to Bali.

      And I’m not entirely sure that ‘pure economics’ – i.e. supply and demand – is relevant to the increasing costs of imported food and alcohol which are subject to punitive taxes and duties. It would be illuminating to see if sales of these items have in fact dropped off. My gut feeling is that fewer people buying over-dutied goods may well result in a net tax and duty reduction to the government. Probably not the intended outcome, but maybe an example of ‘pure economics’ at work. 😉

  4. You write, “I’m not convinced that all of the large spend by Japanese tourists flows into The Bali economy.”

    There is no question that all of this influx of money does not flow directly into the Balinese economy. As you know, many top end Japanese clients favor using the high end and partially owned Japanese resorts and spas…Kirana Spa and the Royal Pita Maha near Ubud (and just around the corner from where I live) come immediately to mind, but none the less, those entities are in partnership with local Balinese, so there is no question of the favorable economic impact of those business ventures, not to mention the salaries paid to local Balinese workers who operate them. In addition, the Japanese tend to be “quality” shoppers and they often frequent and purchase from local galleries, craft, and other shops which are largely Balinese owned and operated.

    Not to intentionally demean Australian tourist, especially considering that as a people, Australian tourists can largely be credited with developing Bali as a major tourist destination, the simple fact is that even today Bali remains a cheaper alternative for them for a vacation destination. Similar vacations in OZ simply cost more, or so they often will say.

    A perfect demonstration of this reality, one which is clearly demonstrated on the late Peter Rieger’s forum, The Bali Travel Forum, (which is clearly dominated by Ozites), are the never ending questions relating to where to stay the cheapest, where to party and drink the cheapest, and where to shop the cheapest. You could read that forum for endless years before reading a question like, “where can I see a Calonarang?”

    In my view, it is precisely the law of supply and demand which fuels this “fooling around” with imported goods. Moreover, this is not the first time, not by a long stretch, that this sort of game playing has gone on. Anyone living here for the past 10 plus years can easily recall the days when virtually none of these now available imported foods were available here in Bali at any price. As I recall, it was around the year 2000 that I was first able to enjoy real cheese other than that horrible processed sliced junk that only seems to fit a greasy hamburger.

    As for the booze, ask any long time bar owner how long the games on taxing that commodity, including raids to confiscate illegal liquor, has been going on. It’s a cyclical game that seems never ending and it may well remain that way for a time. It wasn’t so long ago that during Ramadan, bars in Jakarta could almost count on being raided by more extremist “thugs” but yet this annual event (the raids) has subsided, at least for now.

    Is this phenomenon due to Indonesia being primarily Muslim, or is it greed? The answer to that depends on what point of time one is talking about, but in the end, it’s generally been a combination to one degree or another of both.

    That’s Indonesia, and for those of us who have called Indonesia home for a long time, well, simply put, we’ve learned to make adjustments, but I don’t know of any long term expat who includes within “adjustments” a denial of enjoying such pleasures.

    In short, those of use who call Bali or other parts of Indonesia home understand that this entire country is slowly growing and developing, and in that process it is normal to expect glitches, upsets and down right crazy things to happen now and then. Every great nation has experienced this at one time in their history and many still do. Personally, I love it, as it almost seems to me what being in the US might have been like in the 1840’s. A bit wild, somewhat unreliable, never boring, never consistent, but always offering huge opportunities for a great life so long as one is willing to remain flexible, tolerant and appreciative of life here in Bali, which for me has never been better. For those of us who are committed life long to remain in Bali as expats for one reason or other, such as marriage and kids with a Balinese, there will never be any other home for us than Bali.

    In any event, a good discussion, IMHO, has resulted from your blog post. While I hate to quote Martha Stewart, none the less, that is “a good thing.”

  5. so true!

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