Thu, 05 Oct 2000

Is Bali becoming increasingly less attractive for visitors?

By Simon Marcus Gower

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Three people were recently seen on a sunny street in Bali, each one in a state of agitation, each one far from at peace on the island of the Gods.

The first, a figure of concentration riding upon a speeding motorbike, swerved among the traffic risking life and limb to get where he was going - or perhaps more realistically to get away from where he had been. The second figure, one of determination - running like an Olympic sprinter, his eyes fixed on the motorcyclist.

He is chasing the motorbike but has no hope of catching up with the speeding machine. The third and final figure is a sadder one. Red faced, crying and following the 'sprinter' she trots along but cannot make up the ground or speed to reach the running man.

Soon the 'sprinter' has to give up his chase and return to the sad, tearful third figure. The street drama is seemingly over, as he tries to console his disconsolate companion. So what drama has unfolded on this small, normally quiet Balinese street? Sadly, another crime has been committed. The motorcyclist was the criminal, snatching the female's handbag from her shoulder as he rode past.

Breaking the handbag's strap as he did so, the violence of the action left painful red marks across her shoulder. The thief made his getaway weaving his way through the traffic whilst the boyfriend of the female victim set off on an angry but futile chase.

Other people on this street paused to see what was happening but few, if any, had enough knowledge of what had happened, or time, to react and attempt to intercept the speeding motorcyclist.

Others gathered around the weeping girl to find out what had happened and perhaps offer some sympathy but the crime was committed too quickly for anyone to have any real chance of apprehending the perpetrator.

Was this just an isolated incident?

One would like to think so, but away from the group of tourists that gathered to console the victim a 'local' offered a candid observation regarding such events.

This 'local', actually being a Javanese person working in one of Bali's many cafes, suggested that this was not an isolated incident.

Over an approximate two-month period he had witnessed the unhappy aftermath of three other such grab-and-run incidents. The thieves target handbags or purses left in exposed positions.

Such crimes may be described as 'petty' but one wonders whether the tourist victims consider 'petty' the loss of not only money, credit cards and identification materials but also, very personal belongings.

The inconvenience of such a theft is considerable but equally significant is the lasting memory that comes with such an unpleasant experience.

Memories are an essential element of a place such as Bali. The happy tourist will go home with good memories, perhaps spread the good news and perhaps return. But the aggrieved tourist may spread a negative message and probably be discouraging to others and be discouraged to return. Sometimes, too, in Bali no particular crime is committed but a sense of trust and welcoming warmth in people can be lost.

A couple of tourists from England recently related how they met an elderly man walking on the beach at Sanur.

Soon they were chatting and the elderly man was speaking of his family. After a while the man invited the couple to meet his daughter.

Feeling some sense of honor to receive such an invitation and not wishing to offend the elderly man, they decided to accept the invite.

Naive and ill advised perhaps, but soon the seemingly friendly threesome was on its way to the 'daughter's place' only to find that the 'place' was in fact a restaurant at which the couple was duly expected to eat.

Again not wishing to offend, the couple dined only to find that when the bill for the meal arrived it was twice the price of any meal they had previously had in Bali.

No particular crime here but there is that unfortunate breaking of trust that is so damaging.

That couple, though able to laugh off the experience, probably still retains a rather sour taste when they think back on it. A taste and an experience that is contrary to what the Balinese would typically hope for and expect.

Is Bali, then, becoming less of an attractive prospect for visitors? Surely not, it is still a wonderful place to take a vacation and relax, forgetting one's woes and the stresses of everyday life.

But crime and criminality along with some less than welcoming behavior can certainly dent the image.

An elderly Japanese tourist visiting Bali for no less than the ninth time can bring a seasoned visitor's assessment. As an annual visitor he has observed much over these years. Widowed and enjoying a frugal existence back home from his pension, this friendly and surprisingly fit gentleman has clearly enjoyed his many visits to Bali. As he put it 'everything in Japan is so expensive, Bali is (comparatively) nice and cheap'. But economic concerns are not the only attraction to this seventy-one year old as he cycles around Kuta's streets. The friendliness of the people, many of whom know him and welcome him as a familiar guest (even friend), has been a vital ingredient for him.


But in a calm and thoughtful mood at the time of a recent sunset at Kuta this veteran traveler reflected on how 'things have changed'. He observed that the street-sellers have become more numerous in number and that 'bad people' have come to Bali and changed the kind of welcome that tourists may receive. Most regrettably for Bali, this multiple visitor ended by questioning whether he would return to Bali for a tenth time. The changes he has seen on the island have made him doubt whether Bali will remain his summer vacation destination.

It may be true that the tourist industry all over the world is prone to accepting less acceptable behavior from both tourists and those that serve them. However, even if one recognizes this phenomenon, this unwanted side of tourism should not be condoned. Bali is too precious and too unique to be allowed to be tarnished by the criminality and opportunism that capitalizes on the unwitting or even willing visitor.

It is probably fair to say that Bali will continue to attract scores of tourists to its shores but with unchecked criminality it is doubtful whether there will be many repeat visitors like the elderly Japanese gentleman. As he cycles around Bali, he views with some regret the subtle changes he can see in the life and lives of the Balinese people. Those lingering doubts about another return visit must be uncomfortable thoughts for this sprightly old traveler and those same doubts should be uncomfortable for Bali to consider too.