Tourism colonialism in Bali: How a tourist’s dream became a local’s nightmare

Tourism colonialism in Bali: How a tourist’s dream became a local’s nightmare

By Cahaya Arga Putri Diponegoro, Carisa Adinda Puspitasari, Sarah Dhita Angraeni*

The recent incident in Bali sparked numerous debates on social media as the Bali police chief threatened to use the Electronic Information and Transaction Act, or so-called UU ITE.

One netizen on Twitter said that it is ironic that tourists who misbehave in other countries are dealt with immediately, but in Bali, citizens who report foreigner misbehavior are silenced.

This discourse makes us wonder how the travel of foreign tourists in Bali illustrates a new form of colonialism, as the place has become a dream destination for tourists, but on the other hand, it has also led to a nightmare for locals.

What makes Bali attractive to foreign tourists

One obvious reason why Bali is so popular among foreign tourists is that the Indonesian rupiah is a weak currency compared to foreign currencies, which makes Bali affordable for foreigners.

Of course, this led to many foreigners traveling to Bali and thus contributing to the island’s economy, but it also created a new problem: a considerable number of foreigners began to live in Bali, and through social media, this could lead to gentrification.

The discourse of Bali’s gentrification has been popping up on social media over the years as foreign digital nomads flock to the island and tout the “ideal” way to live this low-cost lifestyle. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that privileged foreigners are reinforcing the idea that Bali is the perfect and affordable place to live when in reality it hasn’t always been the case for locals.

The emergence of such digital nomads illuminates the welfare gap between Indonesians and foreigners. Due to the income gap and low cost of living, digital nomads can live a life of luxury on low-income islands where locals undoubtedly earn less than they do. In short, these digital nomads are people who have migrated from wealthy countries in search of a cheaper way of life. This further showcases the tourism colonialism that Bali is currently facing.

The Capitalization of Balinese Culture

Known as the land of the gods, Bali showcases its rich artistic heritage through captivating narratives revolving around the gods. Balinese art is deeply rooted in Javanese-Hinduism and is a reverent tribute to the gods.

Bali’s mesmerizing performing arts, especially the agile and energetic Balinese dance, captivate tourists with its gorgeous costumes and visual effects. However, the impact of tourism on Balinese dance has raised concerns about its sacred nature and significance to locals.

A popular dance, the Barong, symbolizes the eternal struggle between good and evil, featuring the mythical creatures Barong and Rhonda. The performance requires specific rituals to end, adding to its spiritual significance.

However, commercial adaptations of the dance have emerged, catering to tourist preferences. These modified versions often feature shortened durations, simulated trance states, and minimal dialogue. While some feel that these adaptations provide an authentic experience in a tourist setting, others worry that the spiritual nature of the dance may be diluted.

The capitalization of Balinese dance has not only affected its sanctity but also the economic sector. Unfortunately, the distribution of financial benefits is often unfair, characterized by an imbalance of power and a competitive environment that results in dancers being paid less than minimum wage. This exploitation raises doubts about the true promotion and preservation of Balinese culture.

Despite the significant cultural investment made by the Balinese people and concerns raised about the commercialization of dance, a pressing question remains: Are most Balinese dancers adequately compensated for their contributions?

Many tourism businesses rely on brokers, creating an imbalanced power dynamic and creating a competitive economy that often results in sub-par salaries for dancers.

How tourist colonialism became a nightmare for locals

The capitalization of Balinese culture afflicts not only the dancers’ economy, but that of the locals as well.

There is no doubt that cultural performances and the like have attracted the attention of many foreigners, which has led to an escalation of demand. This growing demand has triggered price increases in many of Bali’s tourist attractions. Not only in performing arts centers, but in many other places such as beaches, restaurants, bars, etc. Local people who are directly engaged in tourism may not have difficulty facing inflation, but those who are not directly engaged in tourism face the worst nightmare.

The rise in prices is not just happening in everyday items, but in something bigger, that is real estate. As mentioned earlier, due to the influx of foreigners in Bali, property prices there started to rise, meeting the demand. This situation forces locals to only afford suburban housing, as house prices in central Bali are unimaginable.

These phenomena perfectly describe the modern form of colonialism in which foreign newcomers slowly displace natives. Now they can barely afford the beaches they used to enjoy for free.

While there is much debate about how much modernization and globalization are affecting locals, the fact remains that tourism is a driver of change. The point is how much control the community has over these changes. In this regard, the Indonesian government should focus on the protection of cultural heritage in Bali, enhance the community participation rights of local people, and enforce regulations to inspect and monitor instances of gentrification, and take appropriate measures to address the issues we identified above.

*The authors are a collaborative group of international undergraduate students majoring in international relations at Gadjah Mada University who are passionate about viewing world phenomena and their impact on people’s daily lives through the lens of international political economy. This jointly authored article seeks to see tourism in Indonesia from a different perspective.

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