Travel Colonialism in Bali: How Tourists’ Dreams Become the Local’s Nightmare

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

The recent occurrence that happened in Bali has sparked numerous debates on social media as the Bali Police Chief threatened to criminalize people that upload and share viral  videos  and  content  regarding  foreign  tourists’  misbehavior  by  utilizing  the Electronic Information and Transactions law, or what is known as UU ITE.

One netizen on Twitter stated the irony of how tourists that misbehave in other countries would be dealt with immediately, however, in the case of Bali, citizens who reported foreigners’ misconduct are silenced.

This discourse leads us to wonder how foreign tourist travels in Bali illustrated a new form of colonialism as the place has become a tourist’s dream destination, but on the other hand, it has also resulted in the nightmare of the locals.

What makes Bali attractive to foreign tourists

One apparent reason why Bali is very popular among foreign tourists is due to the fact that the Indonesian rupiah is a weak currency when compared to foreign currencies, this resulted in the affordability of Bali to foreigners.

Sure, this has led to many foreigners traveling to Bali and consequently contributing to the island’s economy, but it also has created a new problem: a considerable number of foreigners started living in Bali and over-glorifying the low-cost living by promoting it on social media, which could lead to gentrification.

The discourse of gentrification in Bali has emerged repeatedly over the years on social media due to foreign digital nomads flocking to the island and advertising this “ideal” way of a low-cost living lifestyle. This is problematic because of various reasons, one of which is the fact that privileged foreigners are enforcing this idea that Bali is the perfect and affordable place to live in, when in reality that is not always the case when it comes to the local people.

The emergence of such digital nomads elucidates the welfare disparity between Indonesians and foreigners. With the income disparity and cheap cost of living, digital nomads  can  live  in  luxury  on  a  low-income  island  where  the  local’s  income  is undeniably lower than theirs. Simply said, these digital nomads are people who moved from wealthy nations in search of a cheaper means of living. This further showcases the travel colonialism that Bali is currently facing.

The capitalization of Bali culture

Known as the land of the gods, Bali showcases its rich artistic heritage through captivating  narratives  revolving  around  deities.  The  art  of  Bali,  deeply  rooted  in Java-Hinduism, serves as a reverent tribute to divine beings.

Bali’s mesmerizing performance art, particularly the agile and dynamic Balinese Dance, enthralls tourists with its ornate costumes and visual splendor. However, the impact of tourism on Balinese dance has raised concerns about its sacred essence and meaning for the locals.

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

However, commercial adaptations of the dance have emerged, catering to the preferences  of  tourists. These modified versions often feature shortened durations, simulated trances, and minimal dialogue. While some argue that these adaptations provide an authentic experience within a tourist context, others raise concerns about the potential dilution of the dance’s spiritual essence.

The  capitalization  of Balinese dance not only impacts its sacredness but also has repercussions on the economic sector. Unfortunately, the distribution of economic benefits is often inequitable, characterized by power imbalances and competitive environments that lead to dancers being paid below the minimum wage standards. This exploitation raises doubts about the genuine promotion and preservation of Balinese culture.

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

Many tourist businesses rely on brokers, creating an imbalanced power dynamic and fostering a competitive economic environment that often results in subpar wages for dancers.

How does the travel colonialism become the local’s nightmare

The capitalization of Bali culture does not only torture the economy of the dancers but also the economy of the locals.

It is unarguable that the art performances and whatnot attract the attention of many foreigners,  which  leads  to  the  escalation  of  the  demand.  This  escalating demand triggers the rising of prices in many of Bali’s tourist attractions. Not only in the art performing centers, but also in many other places, such as beaches, restaurants, bars, and so on. The locals who are directly involved in the tourism industry may find no hassle in facing inflation, but the ones who are not directly involved in the industry are facing their biggest nightmare.

The escalation of prices does not only occur in everyday goods, but it also occurs in bigger aspects, namely real estate. As mentioned before, due to the number of foreigners flocking to move to Bali, the prices of housing there are beginning to rise, fulfilling the demand. This occurrence forces the locals to only be able to afford housing in the suburbs, as the price of houses in the center of Bali is unimaginable.

Those phenomena perfectly portray the modern form of colonialism in which the foreign newcomers slowly shift the locals. Now, they can barely afford the beaches they used to enjoy for free.

While there have been many debates made about how much modernization and globalization have affected locals, the truth remains that tourism is a driver for change. The key focus lies in the level of control communities have over these changes. In this regard, the government of Indonesia should focus on cultural heritage preservation in Bali, empower community participation of the local people, and enforce regulations in order to inspect and monitor instances of gentrification and take adequate measures to solve the issues we’ve established above.

*The authors, a collaborative group of students from Gadjah Mada University majoring in the International Undergraduate Program of International Relations, have a passion for seeing world phenomena through the lens of International Political Economy and how it impacts people’s everyday life. This jointly written article strives to provide a different perspective on seeing Indonesia’s travel industry.

Cahaya Arga Putri Diponegoro
Cahaya Arga Putri Diponegoro
Student from Gadjah Mada University majoring in the International Undergraduate Program of International Relations