On Tourism and Publishing: A Reflection from Studying Abroad in Bali, Indonesia
I began my endeavor into recreational writing––first penning news articles and then poems––during my junior year of high school. Shortly after I began, I started sharing my work through my school’s literary magazine and newspaper. I continued publishing until I went abroad my junior year of college to Bali, Indonesia in the fall of 2017.
Before my jettison into Indonesia, I recognized Bali as a vacation hotspot but knew nothing else of the country or island: not that it is the fourth most populated country, nor that it has the largest Muslim population, nor that there was a genocide in 1965. I somehow knew there were great beaches there. Why?
Western anthropologists journeyed to the island in the 1930s, enthralled by its unique customs. An island ravished by imperialism, its Dutch and Javanese invasions blended a Hindu-Buddhist religion existing in Java with a native Balinese Animism creating a one of a kind cultural heritage.
This heritage engendered dance, sculpture, and painting, unlike anywhere else. The island attracted artists such as the German musician and painter Walter Spies and the infamous American anthropologist Margaret Mead who conducted research with her English husband Gregory Bateson on the island. They were among the first anthropologists to incorporate film and photography into their research. A troupe of Balinese Legong dancers––an indigenous Balinese dance involving intricate finger, eye, and head movements––traveled Europe in 1932. That same year, Charlie Chaplin fled to the island after the invent of talkies to consider his career’s future. A Mexican artist, Miguel Covarrubias published a detailed study of the island in 1936. This western diaspora then disseminated their Balinese-inspired work in the Americas and Europe, contributing to the island’s radical rise in popularity.
The island exists as two coexisting spaces. First, the demand space––the developed tourist areas with grocery stores stocking gluten-free crackers, five-star luxury beach hotels owned by foreign investors, and multi-floor nightclubs like Sky Garden that have hosted DJs like Steve Aoki, Marshmello, and Afrojack. Second, the supply space––comprised of Balinese men and women who manage the hotels for foreign owners, sweep the floors, maintain the front desk, and drive the taxis and Grab bikes––Southeast Asia’s Uber or Lyft. Most of these employees live in villages separated from the amenities created for tourists. Single-story family complexes, traditional food markets, and hand-crafting artisans make up the supply space and there are no locations designed for tourists. If tourists came, they wouldn’t have places to sleep or activities to compile an itinerary.
I lived in a village homestay within the supply space. I drank at hole in the wall warungs––family-owned cafés to eat, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes–– and steadily improved my Bahasa Indonesia––literally meaning “Indonesian Language”––by speaking to community members on my walk to and from my program’s center. Most times I struck up a conversation with a young man he would reveal his entrepreneurial position in the supply space, telling me he drove tourists around. He would give me his card with a reminder to spread his number if I had friends or family visit the island. While many indigenous Balinese people supplied their bodies and time to drive tourists around the island, many others could be found supplying labor to the expensive hotels and restaurants those same tourists would return to each night. Students attending university often pursued majors in tourism to acclimate to this lucrative sector of the economy.
My itinerary consisted of six weeks in Bali, six more weeks in Jogjakarta, a city in the adjacent island of Java, a month conducting research in Bali, and then two final weeks in Jogjakarta. During my first six-week jaunt in Bali, I got a seemingly random text from my grandma asking if I was okay. She asked me if I had been affected by the volcanic eruption of Mount Agung. Eruption? I hadn’t been aware, but somehow, my grandmother who lives in a suburb of St. Louis was more informed than a student just miles from the epoch.
Thus began a sputtering of texts from friends and family back home, asking about my safety. Each time, I assured the sender I was okay, in fact, I hadn’t seen any response in Bali to the Mount Agung news. The executive leadership of The School for International Training (SIT) also phoned my site’s program director telling her that we may have to remain in Jogjakarta for the remainder of the semester. We were astonished. The 28 of us were on the island and had felt no consequences of this volcanic activity.
I started looking at the articles published by media sources in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand and found trends. The articles mentioned that the last time Mount Agung erupted in 1963, over 1500 people died, that tourist hubs were near the volcano, and the airport was potentially closing temporarily. None of the articles included statements from Balinese people, or responses from people on the island.
This reveals a third space in addition to the supply and demand spaces: the publishing space, which connects international consumers to the demand space and completely shuts out the supply space. Instead of existing within a physical location, like the demand and supply spaces do, the publishing space exists as information. It influences the consumers who make up the demand space, by creating an attractive or unattractive getaway location. The supply space then needs to provide the right material goods and labor to accommodate the consumers. Even though local Balinese producers feel the effect of the publishing space, they have very little access to it. The publishing space is content written almost entirely by Westerners, for Westerners, shutting out the ability of the supply space to sculpt its own narrative.
A few days before we were to leave Jogjakarta and head back to Bali, our program director sat us down and told us that the leaders of SIT may not let us go back to Bali. We understood that they were concerned for our safety, no one cared more about our safety than us, but we had seen absolutely no effect of this volcanic reaction before we left Bali, and we knew we were a 50-mile drive from the volcano itself around which, even when the volcano was erupting forcefully, there was only a six-mile evacuation perimeter. If there was a massive eruption, we would remain unhurt from the eruption itself, although a dispersion of evacuees into the area and ash into the air were the primary concerns of SIT.
We received approval to go back to Bali at the end of October, where I began my four-week research paper. I traveled to remote parts of the island where no one speaks English, and to the most popular tourist locations like Seminyak, Ubud, and Canggu. Everyone was unaffected, but with the increased activity in mid to late November and the beginning of the six-mile evacuation, we were forced to spend the final two weeks to present our research in Jogjakarta rather than in Bali.
My mom met me in Bali after the program ended, in an island almost unrecognizable to me. I explained to her that the locations we reclined in––Sanur and Ubud––were as crowded as New York’s Penn Station just weeks ago. Whereas there were once tourists commanding their way through streets and beaches, there were now just Balinese vendors, taxi and boat drivers incessantly asking if we wanted to enlist their services. The publishing space had decimated the demand space, sharply decreasing the number of tourists in the area. This was December, peak holiday season. When we went back to my homestay village, my young-adult friends urged me to broadcast that Bali was safe to people back home. They had to use me and my networks as a conduit because they were denied access to the publishing space; I was seeing the publishing spaces’ real influence on their livelihood.
There were surely actualized fears from the volcano. 100,000 people were ordered to evacuate and it was reported that 40,000 did. After the first evacuation request in September, some had stayed in the evacuation centers for months. Due to ash, the island’s only airport closed on November 27th and 28th. However, these incendiary effects were amplified exponentially by the publishing space.
News.com.au reported on December 29, 2017 that the island lost 1.5 billion US dollars in revenue. A tasty meal is about $2 at a local spot. For an entrepreneurial island, in which tourism consists of 60% to 70% of the island’s economic activity and generates 68% of tax income and absorbs 42% of new labor, a dip in tourism has the potential to topple the whole economy. When I arrived back in the United States, I kept up to date with the reporting on the island. Of the multitudes of articles, only one or two included interviews of Balinese citizens. Most articles simply stated the death count of the previous eruption in 1963, an astonishing 1500 people.
Writing, or publishing at least, has detrimental consequences. I suppose this is obvious, but I had never felt or conceptualized its potential dangers. First, the dissemination of Bali’s culture lured Western tourists to the island and, coupled with policies in the Suharto era (1967-1998), encouraged massive and unregulated foreign investments in only one sector of the island’s economy, tourism. Second, Western journalists focused just on the sensationalized facts of fall 2017, the previous death count, and a few days the airport closed in the end of November. This continued an ongoing practice of mapping a false world onto the actual reality of Bali, which further resulted in a dramatized and woefully incomplete understanding of the situation on the ground. This begot massive financial losses for the tourism-based economy on the island.
This piece is hypocritical, doing the very thing it’s critiquing, and I’m not sure how to settle that. I guess I’m publishing now because I think words mended carefully together can speak in union with, rather than on top of, muffled voices. Before going to Indonesia, I equated writing with expression and communication, without considering the potential of boisterous and errant story-telling. More startling, I’m sure all of these writers had no knowledge of the potential impact of their stories or how they might snowball.
One of my Balinese mentors estimated that the tourists came back around March to April of 2018, and there have been no deaths from Mount Agung’s eruption.