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Bali – Paradise Lost

Bali is sold as a surf Mecca and hedonistic party for young holiday makers. In fact it is a ruined Eden.

Many tourist representations of Bali invoke an image of paradise. They want you to picture yourself as surfer Leonard Luevas describes:

“comfortably ensconced in a place where smiling locals meditate and pursue their timeless and mystical ways and where resident and visiting surfers spend much of their time riding flawless waves and living in a hedonistic life that other surfers can only dream about.”

The bombing in Kuta gutted this myth but Bali’s precious culture had already been screwed by tourism long before the blast.

For approximately forty years, Bali was reasonably “off the beaten path”; frequented by anthropologists, adventure seekers and freaks searching out their little corner of Paradise. The West’s discovery of Balinese surf breaks in the 1960’s ensured the island’s culture would be forever changed, however. Surfers, bohemian honeymooners, budget travelers and (the final kiss of death) the Lonely Planet all arrived. Resorts were constructed, skyscrapers erected and before anyone knew it, Bali became a tourist hotspot with barely a shred of its own culture surviving. Bali became like what Cancun, Mexico is to Americans – a resort with a mirage of foreign culture.

Many Balinese have relocated to new neighborhoods in urban tourist centers and lost touch with their traditional customs and everyday village life. With the influx of tourism the indigenous Balinese forgot their usual way of life to sell souvenirs, prostitute their identity and indulge the tourist fantasy of life on a tropical island. An amusing example of this phenomenon occurred during President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 visit; he was treated to a performance of a kecak dance, considered to be symbolic of Bali, in his honor. The kecak dance performed was actually created by German artist Walter Spies and some Balinese dancers in the 1930s.

The incline of tourists in Bali drew to an abrupt halt on October 12, 2002. In the early hours of the morning, a member of a Javanese Islamic fundamentalist group entered Paddy’s Bar on the crowded Jalan Legion. The bar was packed with partygoers and holidaymakers. He walked to the middle of the dance floor and detonated the explosives taped to his chest, causing a mass stampede for the exit.

Parked just outside though was a van loaded with explosives which detonated 30 seconds afterwards. The carnage was devastating. The blast decimated the nearby bars killing 203 people, almost all of them tourists. Fundamentalist Muslims with links to al-Qaida had targeted the busy Kuta Beach street because of its high concentration of Western tourists.

The aftermath of the “Bali Bomb” saw an immense economic shift on the island where tourism counted for 79% of its total income. News of the bomb splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the World. The British, American, and Canadian Governments issued travel advisories warning its citizens not to travel to Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia. Even the Aussies were afraid to return for months afterwards.

However, even prior to the bombing Bali experienced a double-edged representation. The October 2001 edition of Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring describes Bali as “both a tropical paradise and an example of the destructive effects of tourism.” On Lonely Planet’s website, we learn that “Bali is so picturesque that you could be fooled into thinking it was a painted backdrop…But the paradise gloss has been manufactured and polished by the international tourist industry rather than by the Balinese themselves…and it pays scant regard to the political and economic reality of life on Bali.”

Even Fodors, a guidebook publisher typically orientated towards first class tourists refrains from writing an overview of Bali in the usual romantic fashion. “The beautiful beaches…are thick with resort development.” After the bombing the Balinese suffered enormously as tourism fell off. Many people were reduced to living off of less than $1 a day. The people had become dependent on tourism and the whole island assumed a gloomy air.

To make matters worse on February 1st, 2003, the Indonesian government put new regulations concerning travel visas into effect. In the past a traveler was granted a free sixty-day visa on arrival -It was changed to a thirty-day visa on arrival with a fee of twenty dollars. The Indonesian government presumably placed these new visa sanctions into effect in order to both line their pockets and discourage ‘low class travelers’. What the Indonesian government seemingly failed to recognize (or care about) is that budget tourists stay for longer periods of time, end up spending more money and support local businesses.

The environmental implications of reduced tourism are becoming clear, particularly in the tourist Mecca of Kuta Beach. Although there are less tourists now than usual, there are still enough drunken surfers and Australian college kids to create a huge mess. But now, thanks to the bombing, garbage cans in densely populated public places have been banned as potential hiding places for bombs.

Revenue from tourism would eventually paid for a proper waste disposal system but in light of the recent recession plans have been put on hold. As it stands, locals in Kuta empty their garbage into a river that spills its contents out into the Indian Ocean during high tide. Then, the swells on Kuta Beach, Bali’s only sand bottom surf break, deposit all the garbage onto the beach. This, the most popular spot for beginning surfers, sometimes resembles a cesspool.

Bali is sold as a surf Mecca and hedonistic party for young holiday makers. In fact it is a ruined Eden. An island bloated by over development and over promotion. One feels that even had it not been for the bombing Bali may well have gone the way of Acapulco and ended up a sleazy, forgotten resort. A search for “Bali” and “Travel” on Yahoo brings a website called http://www.bali-paradise.com. It had a counter that kept repeating a message that seems to sum up Bali’s plight: “Bali has too much to offer to be forgotten, please continue to support Bali!”

Maybe Bali would be better off left to its own devices. Tragedy and hard times have fallen onto the island. Westerners have loved her and left her feeling cheap and used.

Cam Christie

Dr. 'Scam' Christie has traveled throughout Southeast Asia and South America on an anthopological quest to know the world. He is currently somewhere in the Amazon…