Attracting The Elderly Tourist

July 12, 2012

Bali’s grand plan for tourism seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It doesn’t really seem to be a plan as such – it’s more a series of somewhat reactive slogans that sound plausible until they need to actually be implemented.

For years, the driving principle seemed to be ‘let’s encourage more and more to come – but we won’t even think about improving the infrastructure to support the increase. Then, when it became apparent that tourists were staying for shorter periods and spending less, it became ‘there are too many stingy tourists – let’s go for quality instead’. Still no mention of improving infrastructure to attract those elusive ‘quality’ tourists though.

Now, it seems that a new target market that fulfils the desired ‘quality’ demographic is in the cross-hairs. Ida Bagus Kade Subikshu, head of Bali’s tourism agency, wants to encourage older visitors. He is quoted as enthusiastically saying, “The prospect for elderly tourism is huge.” He speaks of promoting activities, destinations and cultural experiences for the mature set, which is laudable, but says little about – you guessed it – viable infrastructure that would make it possible.

So I contemplate his suggestion while gazing around me. I see the uneven, dangerous footpaths, open pits and loose, pivoting manhole covers – and think of fragile, low-density bones just waiting to snap, crackle and pop as well as any breakfast cereal. I see the unpredictable traffic that demands astonishing agility by pedestrians just to survive a simple road crossing.

I see hotels with a multitude of levels, few lifts, and bathrooms with showers over slippery, high-walled baths. I see the potential for a tropical environment exacerbating age-related illness, and the impossibility of getting fast-response trauma care through the grid-locked streets. I see the heat, humidity, dust and exhaust fumes sapping the strength of young, healthy tourists and wonder just how the elderly would cope.

And just as I am ready to dismiss Kade’s idea as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream, I read – with no small degree of  shock – that he defines his ‘elderly’ target group as those over 55 years old. I’m already more than 10 years past his cut-off point! I’m not elderly dammit! I’m … well, mature, but I still manage to live happily in Bali without breaking a hip, or needing someone to hand me my Zimmer frame when I get off my motorbike.

So I decide that ‘elderly’ is a relative term. My 90 year-old mother is elderly, not me. Mind you, I thought she was elderly when I was 30, and I’m sure my own kids, being in the prime of their lives, regard me as a broken-down old crock.

With that epiphany, I look around again with fresh eyes. And suddenly my focus is on the teeming throngs of people, not on the obstacle course that they are negotiating. A good proportion of them are over 55 – and they are all managing splendidly. They happily go on tours all over the island, they walk the broken streets with confidence, explore rickety stairs, ride motorbikes,  and generally seem to thrive on the anarchic bedlam that is Bali.

And that could well be the secret. My own contemporaries love Bali, because it provides an escape from the cloying strictures of Australia’s over-regulated nanny-state. They enjoy a place  where a righteous army of do-gooders doesn’t choke their spirit. They thrive in a place that, despite having many risks to life and limb,  allows them to take personal responsibility for their own safety and well-being, instead of being treated like extraordinarily dense sheep.

So go for it Kade. Encourage the oldies. For a start, the SKIers (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) crowd are not as impecunious as the youngsters and they are far less likely to get blind drunk and abusive. You also solve at least part of your problem with the late-night club scene, because they’re all in bed by the time the clubs open.

By all means fix the garbage problem and the dirty beaches – that’s for the benefit of the whole society here. But don’t try to lure oldies with the promise of vastly improved infrastructure. Not only can Bali not afford the broad boulevards, wide footpaths, parks and proliferating malls of places like Singapore, those free-spirited older tourists who come to Bali probably don’t really want them anyway. Some might even be making up for missing the hippy trail experience in their youth, and are making up for it now.

Bali is still a frontier in a way – a place where you can survive on your wits, enjoy the local culture, learn the rudiments of a different language, interact with a wide variety of interesting characters, dodge traffic and just go with the chaotic flow of life here.

And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple. Send them to Singapore.

I’ll bet they come back.


  1. Well said Borborigmus. Your essays are thought provoking and entertaining. Reading your posts is always a pleasure.

    It would be great to see any progress toward improvement in the infrastructure problems but I don’t believe it will happen until people start staying away because of the sewerage, water, and road conditions.

  2. I was chatting with someone yesterday – yes, this does happen – and your name came up as a Courageous Blogger. :). You’re up for the Cyber Star, mate…

    This column’s on the nail as ever. I’m sure your exit permit’s still OK though.

  3. “And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple. Send them to Singapore… I’ll bet they come back.”

    No question they’ll come back to Bali…despite the “unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life.”

    Just a few years ago the AARP Magazine listed Ubud, Bali as number 15 on their list of the top places in the world to retire. Add to that the great popularity of the retirement visa for Indonesia…we’ll the message is pretty clear.

  4. Bali is definitely not for the aged with serious health or mobility issues. Having said that, for those able bodied oldsters, Bali is still very attractive. My own mid seventyish parents love Singapore for its order and cleanliness, but also love Bali for its openness and culture. Not sure that they will have a nice time walking down the treacherous footpaths of Ubud central in ten years though, unless the infrastructure improves

  5. Good read ta. First time I visited Bali was in 89. I only stayed a few days in Kuta/Legian area and although fascinated by the hints of Bali’s true artistic heritage, was appalled by the football clubs and there girlfriends type of tourism it attracted. I truly stated that it would be better if they blew up the Sari club and the Bounty ! I went up to Ubud and loved it totally. Back then it was exquisite and I wondered how they got on for thousands of years without tourism ? I went back last year and went straight up to Ubud but of course it was chock a block with big 4 wheel drives full of tourists who then alighted to but fake Paul Smith and Versace. Unfortunately the infrastructure has not kept up with the tourism and the inbalance was obvious everywhere. If you took your eyes of the road or footpath you might be lucky not to trip or stumble into some uneven footpath or pothole. Now I might be classed as an oldie myself and of course would love to have the Island to myself but progress is inevitable but the unchecked exploitation and pace of catering to the tourist dollar will surely ruin the entire Island without some reigning in of profiteers and unscrupulous business models. I actually still loved Ubud when you got away from the mainstream and its natural beauty is astounding. Lets hope and pray that things slow down until the infrastructure can cope and some policy to balance the ecology can be made. Good luck. Slyme

  6. “I truly stated that it would be better if they blew up the Sari club and the Bounty!”

    Nobody living here back in October 2002 will forget when “they” did exactly that…blowing up the Sari Club and another bar across the street called Paddy’s.

    As much as any long time resident on Bali might loath the audacious scene that is Kuta, both prior to that event, or subsequent (and it’s worse now), I think most would keep that old desire very private, if only out of respect for the families and friends that lost loved ones in that horrific event.

    As for Ubud, I wouldn’t worry too much about its future. Most of us who have called it home for many years appreciate the great improvements in its infrastructure, and more importantly, the benefits that growth has proved to the local Ubud area Balinese themselves.

  7. Well, I’m just back in Cairns this morning after 10 days in Ubud.
    While I tend to blithely ignore that which offends my tender eyes and just appreciate the wonderful sights and pleasures that Bali has to offer, this year I took a bloke who had never been to Bali before.
    He spent most of his time saying, “Amazing!” and “Unbelievable!” while I tried to play down the precarious footpaths and rubbish piled everywhere in the main streets of Ubud.
    In the end Bali/Ubud won him over and he is now planning his next trip back …. but, your article is quite correct, as usual. Many things really do need to be fixed and should be fixed .. and pretty damned soon.

    • Hi Andrea, not sure I’ve seen rubbish piled everywhere, but most certainly I’ve had to negotiate very precarious footpaths… For a place receiving as much tourist revenues as Ubud is these days, it’s a shame really that none of this is ploughed back into infrastructure, at least the small money it would take to fix the dodgy footpaths.

  8. “…rubbish piled everywhere in the main streets of Ubud.”

    Quite an exaggeration there, don’t you think? I’m in Ubud every day, and that comment is neither fair, nor accurate.

    You want spotlessly clean in SE Asia…go to Singapore.

  9. […] wrote an amusing article on this subject, earlier this year. Attracting The Elderly Tourist Borborigmus in Bali Madness takes its toll. Please have exact change. Puri Dukuh Accommodation Reply […]

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