Posts Tagged ‘money changers’

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Stingy Tourists? Or Stingy Government?

April 29, 2012

The Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board,  Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, opened his mouth wide last Wednesday, and firmly inserted his foot. Annoyed that, despite the rise in total tourist numbers to Bali, visitors are now staying for only an average of three or four days instead of the seven days which was the norm ten years ago, and spend only $100 per day instead of $300, he blamed the tourists.

“Stingy tourists” are overcrowding Bali, he whinged. “When they come we have serious problems of traffic and waste. The island becomes dirty”, he said – falling headlong into the time-honoured local practice of blaming everyone else except yourself. It’s a little shocking to see officials – whose job it is to attract tourists – turn on their target market and accuse them of not being good little visitors by staying longer and spending more. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a high-profile public official actually exhibit the same cargo-cult mentality that pervades many less sophisticated villagers here. In effect, he is saying: “You have it. We want it. Give it to us. If you don’t, you are a stingy bule.”

Well, Ngurah, you might think that, but as the voice of Bali tourism, you are not supposed to say it, because the backlash from tourists as a result of your rudeness will only result in a wider public discussion as to the real reasons that people are deserting Bali. I too was a tourist for twelve years before coming here to live. Now, as a resident for over three years, I have constant contact with ‘stingy’ tourists, and as a result of their feedback,  I am happy to summarise for you just why this trend is developing.

Look around you, Ngurah – not with the rose-coloured glasses of a local, but through the eyes of someone arriving in Bali after a long, tiring flight. What do you see?

You will see tourists paying $25 USD each for a 30-day visa-on-arrival to enter the country, and then another $16 USD each to leave. Family of four coming for only 5 days? That’s $164 USD out of the spending budget already, and no way to save money on a one-week visa, because officialdom has withdrawn the short-stay visa facility. Visiting Bali on a cruise lay-over for 6 hours? That’s $25 USD per person thanks.

You will see chaos, delays and inefficiency in a hot, overcrowded arrivals hall, with insufficient staff to handle the passenger load and a confusing queuing system.

You will see tired visitors being pounced on by “porters” at the baggage carousel and cajoled into letting them wheel their bags twenty metres to the customs desk, then stridently demanding $10 for each bag before running off to scam their next victim, as airport ‘security’ personnel stand by and grin.

You will see the monopolistic taxi counter ‘mistakenly’ ask for a rate higher than the official published rates displayed, then see their drivers try to con their passengers out of another 40,000 on arrival at their hotels and villas with a pathetic sob story, or an insistence that “this is the rule!” You will see arriving visitors quail as they face the long, long, crowded walk to their car during the chaotic and visitor-unfriendly airport reconstruction.

You will see tourists arrive at what are now grossly-overpriced and over-starred hotels, which no longer offer the ‘book 7, get 10″ incentive packages of past years, only to be told, “Sorry, your room is not ready.” Even Singapore hotels are now cheaper than those in Bali, which is no longer competitive.

You will see a proliferation of Mini-Marts in garish colours selling monstrously-overpriced items to the hapless tourist. Buy a local magazine there, published in Bahasa Indonesia, with a printed price of 25,000 rupiah on the cover, and you will be charged 55,000 when it is scanned. Shrug from the cashier. “Boss’s rules”.

You will see tourists being accosted by rude touts, women being physically man-handled by sellers who refuse to accept a polite refusal to buy their wares, stall-holders muttering thinly-veiled abuse at tourists who won’t pay four times the going rate in Bali (and twice the price in their home country) for their shoddy goods. You will see criminal money-changers short-changing gullible tourists every day, and the arrogant taxi mafia (the non-Bluebird companies) over-charging customers and threatening real taxi drivers with violence.

You will see tourists stuck in traffic for hours on Bali’s poorly-maintained roads, because no-one even considers the grid-locking consequences of allowing local drivers to park wherever they feel like. You will see suicidal motorbike riders come close to killing pedestrians with their brainless antics and causing accidents with cars, after which they shrilly demand compensation for their own stupidity.

You will see visitors to Bali try to negotiate the open drains with lids which masquerade as  ‘footpaths’ here, and injure themselves when brittle manholes collapse beneath them. You will see tourists with infants in strollers being forced to risk death by having to share the narrow roads with texting drivers and motorcyclists.

You will see tourists now being expected to pay the same prices as at home for mediocre western-style meals, and absolutely exorbitant rates for imported wine, spirits and food. Spirits in bars are frequently counterfeit local replacements and deliberate half-shots in mixed drinks are common. Despite smokers being banned in all restaurants, bars and clubs from the first of June this year, tourists can expect no relief from the constant burning of toxic plastic waste all over Bali, the carcinogenic mosquito fogging smoke and noise, or from the stinking emissions of the ubiquitous buses, trucks and illegal 2-stroke motorbikes.

You will see tourists give up on visiting the ‘cultural epicentre’ of Ubud because of traffic jams and the hundreds of huge buses clogging the town. You will see them give up on visiting far-flung temples and seeing the ‘real’ Bali, because it’s all too hard, and now too expensive. Eventually, you will see them avoiding the immense, noisy, polluted construction zone that is South Bali altogether.

You will see tourists recoil from the stinking piles of garbage on the beaches, on the streets and in the ‘rivers’. Where garbage is collected, it ends up in make-shift tips anywhere the collectors choose to dump it. Just have a look at the huge rat and snake-infested mountain of refuse dumped opposite villa developments in Legian, just off Jalan Nakula; have a look at the environmentally-disastrous heap of rubbish at the entrance to the Mangrove Park.

You will see tourists cautious of potentially rabies-infected dogs, scared of contracting Dengue fever from the incessant mosquitoes, wary of getting Legionnaires disease from poorly-maintained air-conditioners, and amazed that nothing is being done about electricity outages and Bali’s looming water shortage. They are worried about increasing crime and a police force that does nothing without money up-front.

And what does the Tourism Board do to make Bali a more attractive destination for visitors? Nothing. It blames the “stingy tourists”. Wow. What diplomacy, what amazing sensitivity. What a truly stupid, irresponsible thing to say.

Well, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, I have news for you. Tourists have been coming to Bali for decades because it has a special sort of magic. The magic is still there, but it is now being countered by a not-so-special sort of opportunism and greed, over-development, collapsing infrastructure, and an arrogant belief that tourists will keep coming, no matter what.

They won’t. They have already stopped coming; and those who do still come, are spending less. Tourists are changing the Bali paradigm, not because they are “stingy”, but because they are driven by the concept of value for money. And frankly, Bali simply does not provide value for money any more.

The question for you, sir, is what will you and your cohorts in government do to change this?

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Crooked Money-Changers In The Island Of Temples

February 22, 2012

I have just read a fascinating report from the State News Agency Antara, which warns that up to 40% of Bali’s 146 money-changers are operating illegally. This is shocking news – not because of the number of dishonest foreign exchange places, but because Antara seems to believe that there are only 146 money-changers in Bali.

Legian alone probably has 146, and most likely a lot more. Seminyak has hundreds. Kuta, that bastion of ethical trade and commerce, may well have thousands. Every street, every lane, every seething market zone with more than twenty kiosks is festooned with those ubiquitous boards: “Authorised Money Changer. No Commission.” The rates look attractive, but only if you actually get them. And the “authorisation” has most likely been issued by the operator’s cousin, not by any known bank.

The reality is that there are not 146 money-changers in Bali; there are thousands. And the registered, legitimate ones – 88 of them, according to Antara, are far outnumbered by the thieving rat-bags who live off gullible tourists, robbing them senseless and giving Bali a bad name. This would make the real percentage of illegal places closer to 95%.

Just about every first-timer gets stung. You suddenly realise you’ve spent most of your rupiah on T-shirts, bling, cheap massage and cooling beverages, and start looking around for someone to change 50 or 100 dollars so you can continue the spending spree. You see the sign – it says “Authorised”, so it must be legal. In fact, they don’t even charge commission. What nice people! Even the tout drumming up business outside, sincerity oozing from every pore, solemnly declares, “No rip-off!” in earnest tones. And the rate – why, it’s much better than that fancy place your friends recommended!

So in you go, escorted at close quarters by the tout, only to end up jammed up against a tall counter, the top of which comes up to your neck. Behind it is an unctuous smile attached to a person of dubious integrity, who immediately begins the process of cunningly getting as much from you as he can, while giving you as little as possible in return.

He asks how much you want to exchange, you tell him, he pecks on a calculator and displays a figure. For those unfamiliar with the vast number of zeros in Indonesian currency, this can be terminally confusing. He keeps up a high-speed patter designed to distract you from the discrepancy between what you see on his calculator and the rate posted outside on his board. If there is also a rate chart inside, it will often show a different rate to confuse you. If you happen to have a modicum of mathematical ability, you soon realise that the amount shown on his calculator is just plain wrong.

That’s because his calculator commences the calculation with a pre-set bias – and believe me, it’s not in your favour. Should you do the unthinkable and produce your own calculator, he will look at your result with utter shock and horror, apologise profusely, and proceed to thump and shake his “faulty” calculator, blaming its ‘incorrect’ result on the manufacturer, bad batteries and its advanced age. But the calculator trick is only Phase One of the con in these places.

Phase Two is a complex ritual which commences after the actual amount is finally agreed upon. The man takes your money and starts an intricate game of banknote-shuffling  behind the high counter, during which he calls out a running total in hundreds, meaning hundreds of thousands. This is designed to both confuse you and lull you into a false sense of security. Meanwhile, his accomplice, the tout, stands uncomfortably close behind you, so you have to turn around to answer, and engages you in an endless stream of questions.

These continue unabated as the money-changer suddenly slaps down a huge heap of mixed denomination bills on the counter and starts counting them out into piles, calling out the amounts. It’s during this part that tens might miraculously transform into hundreds, at least verbally. If you show the slightest sign of actually following the transaction, the accomplice will distract you with a very personal question accompanied by a friendly dig in the ribs. If this action causes you to take your eyes off the money for a spilt second, some of it disappears behind the counter. No, actually, a lot of it disappears behind the counter, typically between 200,000 and 400,000 in an exchange totalling perhaps 960,000.

By this stage, if you are the average first-timer, you are so confused by the unfamiliar money, the endless chatter, the unwelcome jostling and the oppressive heat that you tend to take the money and run. After all, you saw the entire amount being counted out in front of you, right? Wrong.

If your face betrays any sign of suspicion, the purveyor of dodgy rupiah immediately tries to disarm you by asking, no, insisting that you count out the money yourself. Which of course, you try to do on the only space available – the counter-top. Another barrage of questions and assorted distractions follows, particularly when you discover a discrepancy. Standard operating procedure at this point is for the con-man to say, “This can’t be right. Let me count it again.”

He then quickly picks up the money and arranges it into one pile again, at which point he expertly  ‘fumbles’ and drops some of the stack behind the counter. Amidst profuse apologies, he retrieves both the dropped money and the previously stolen stash, counts it all out again – correctly this time – and gives it back to you to count again.

After you laboriously count out all the small bills and are finally convinced you have it right, he will grab the money  in a lightning-fast move “to stack it for you” as the tout behind you distracts you once more. Needless to say, a goodly portion of your money disappears behind the counter again in a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre that is very difficult to see. Result – you are badly out of pocket.

So why do visitors even use these dubious places? Convenience is one reason – why walk to a legitimate money changer in Bali’s heat, when hey – there’s one right here! The other reason is simply greed, together with an inability to perform the simplest arithmetical computation. A rate of 9,600 looks good compared to the 9,450 offered at a ‘real’ place. But if you’re changing $100, this translates to a ‘saving’ of 15,000 rupiah, worth about $1.60 AUD.

At legitimate places – such as those registered by the Association of the Foreign Exchange Dealers (APVA), you get low counters, money counted out in front of you in high denomination bills, plenty of time to count it again yourself without harassment, a receipt, and friendly, professional staff.

And the rip-off places? Well, as you can see, they’re very different. After a few years of living here, I went back to one of these dodgy places just to see whether I could outsmart the guy and make a whole extra 15,000 rupiah. I changed $100, watched him like a hawk, called him on every trick, and finally counted out the money into the hands of my own accomplice without letting the shonk anywhere near it.

The previously friendly money-changer stared at me aggressively, thrust back my $100, snatched the stack of grubby rupiah from my friend’s hand, and snarled, “You fuck off. Not come back.”

Don’t worry mate, I won’t.