Tue, 30 May 2000

Keeping Bali special, wonderful for tourists

By Simon Marcus Gower

JAKARTA (JP): For the many tourists that arrive in Bali each year, the Balinese experience can be wonderful and special. Bali is world renowned as a holiday destination and by now epithets attached to the island have, to a degree, become commonplace and familiar.

"The Island Paradise", "the Morning of the World" and the "Island of the Gods" are among the glorifying titles attributed to this "Jewel in Indonesia's Tourist Crown".

But in order to retain the special character and culture of Bali that has made such epithets appropriate, care and caution will have to be exercised. The worst excesses of a quite different and far less desirable culture -- namely that of a shallow tourist culture -- are and will likely continue to undermine the cultural integrity of the island.

Similarly, the overbearing nature of a tourist culture is undermining the special qualities that have for so many years brought so many tourists to Bali.

What, then, constitutes this potentially damaging tourist culture? Anyone who has taken a walk on Kuta or Sanur Beach or walked among the many shops in Bali selling anything from "I've been there/done that" T-shirts through to fine and expensive art pieces will be familiar with one attribute of this tourist mentality.

Street hawkers of necklaces, bracelets, rings, watches, sunglasses, sun hats, sarongs, wood carvings, paintings, shells, manicures, pedicures, massages, temporary tattoos ... (the list goes on) swarm around the hapless visitor like bees around a honey pot. While there is nothing too damaging in the selling of mementos or services to make a visitor's time and memories of a place in some way more special, there does need to be some degree of control and respect brought to such trade.

Verbatim comments from just a handful of visitors to the island recently illustrate how excessive attempts to sell to the tourist can conjure up negative sentiments which Bali could do without.

An visitor from English noted "I couldn't believe that people were trying to sell me souvenirs right in the middle of Besakih Temple -- a holy place that I was trying to respect, even if they could not".

Further, a Swedish couple spoke of being "constantly harassed by people asking us to buy their trinkets", and the female partner spoke of feeling "threatened by men standing on street corners calling out "Hey lady, you want transport? Where do you want to go?"

Similarly, two travelers from Austria noted that they could not "escape from people trying to sell you something or other; they just won't leave you alone. Even if you are lying in the sun on the beach."

Perhaps most disturbing for Bali are the comments of a backpacker from Holland who expressed discomfort upon arrival from Thailand: "In Bali the people are always trying to get you to buy something. In Thailand if I asked for directions, sometimes the people would actually take me there. Here they either say I don't know or, oh, you want to buy a map, do you?"

It has to be recognized that these are the comments of only a handful of visitors, but further observations in Bali suggest that they are not exceptional or excessive and may even be considered quite typical experiences. Indeed, further observations tend to suggest that these experiences are quite modest. Street selling in Bali also has a more unsavory and unacceptable nature, which is far more threatening to the Island of the Gods.

Illicit and illegal commodities and services are also offered to the visitor to Bali by street sellers. It is doubtful whether there are many places in the world where the oldest profession has not at sometime been practiced. While one moment, you may be offered transport, the next it could be the services of a woman.


It seems, then, that these street sellers of transportation services (who may approach with a smile and a "welcome to Bali") may also be street pimps for the sex industry in Bali. Offers of sexual services are unsavory enough but when they are followed with a sales pitch of "I have young, clean girls for you, mister," such an encounter is rendered all the more distasteful.

Similarly distasteful, but perhaps more worrying, are the offers of drugs that may readily be encountered on the streets of Bali. Currently in Indonesia, hardly a day goes by without news of the seizure of illegal narcotics at ports of entry to the country or the capture of drug dealers by the law enforcement agencies or even the gunning down of drug runners.

Indonesia is a young country and the average age of its population speaks of a relatively young populace. Almost inevitably, therefore, Indonesia is experiencing the development of its own youth culture, but it is to be hoped that illegal and dangerous drugs can be kept out of such a culture.

In Bali, though, the offers of drugs suggest that narcotics are finding their way onto Indonesian soil and that the supply lines of anything from soft right through to hard (and dangerous) drugs are being successfully maintained. It would appear that Bali needs greater law enforcement efforts to curb these supplies. It is, of course, difficult to determine the exact sources of these supply lines but on the streets of Bali greater efforts may be made to at least confine, hinder and even prevent the activities of sellers.

The problem of hawkers of legal souvenirs and mementos of Bali is, surely, mostly a problem of degree and thus regulation. It is doubtful that anyone is really offended by being approached by a seller during a typical day's holiday in Bali but when one is approached by, literally, one every minute of every day in Bali then the degree of acceptability is probably being exceeded and irritation and annoyance is likely to follow close by. With regulation, the number of street sellers in a particular location at any one time could be controlled and also certain locations may be deemed as off limits to hawkers -- such as temples or museum grounds.

Hawkers and peddlers of illegal commodities and services present a different challenge. Sellers of souvenirs and gifts present a challenge of control which may be quite readily achieved through the issuance of licenses. Illegal and illicit sellers present a challenge of detection and, thence, the application of the law.

Perhaps a starting point for the streets of Bali would be a greater uniformed police presence and the setting up of a telephone drugs hotline to gather and disseminate information about drugs.

Some may suggest that a greater police presence would go against the holiday atmosphere of an island such as Bali, but the comments of an American visitor recently are worthy of note. In the context of disturbances on Lombok he observed "If trouble starts in Bali, I am happy to see the police and the Army on the streets to restore peace."

If Bali is to retain its peaceful and special character, then many battles will have to be won in the war against the worst excesses of the tourist trade. In particular, the battles and victories currently occurring throughout Indonesia against the drugs trade will have to be maintained to prevent Bali's good name from becoming sullied.

Bali is a remarkable and exotic island -- long may it remain so for both the people of Bali and the millions of guests that the island has welcomed to its shores.

-- The writer lives and works in West Java and has enjoyed a number of stays in Bali.