Is Bali selling itself short?

Plenty of traffic in Ubud (BTW this photo misrepresents the extent of helmet use)

There were an astonishing 972 reader comments by 5.30 pm Tuesday on this story in The Age by journalist Carolyn Webb, Bali: why bother?, bemoaning the unwanted attentions from street touts she attracted on a visit to Ubud earlier this month:

Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?”

Even more extraordinary, over 37,000 readers had already voted on-line in answer to this question posed by the newspaper: “Do you agree with the author that Bali isn’t worth visiting?”. I’ve never seen numbers this large in response to any story in The Age before – it seems readers are very, very interested in the topic of Bali.

There’s no way I’m going to trawl through close to 1,000 comments, but my random sample indicates the weight of opinion is solidly against the author. She does herself no favours with a few naïve and possibly even condescending remarks. The weight of opinion from commenters is she should get over it and accept that touting is just the way it is across large parts of south-east Asia. If you don’t like it, they say, then don’t go there. Many argue that touting is an inevitable response to poverty – desperate people are simply trying to put food on the table – and should be accepted as part of what Bali is.

The Age must’ve noticed the depth of feeling in the comments – early in the afternoon the paper posted this counter-perspective, Being taken for a ride in Bali isn’t always such a bad thing, by the acting editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Woolveridge. Even this article generated a respectable 145 comments by 5.30 pm

But it seems most of the “silent majority” – that’s the 36,000 or so who don’t offer a comment but are sufficiently motivated to vote in the online poll – actually agree with Ms Webb. By 5.30 pm a decisive majority (70%) had voted that Bali actually isn’t worth visiting. That’s a very large number and suggests Bali has a serious image problem with the Fairfax demographic (and remember that Ms Webb’s article is about “Eat, Pray, Love” Ubud, not “drunks and druggies” Kuta).

No matter what your personal feelings are about touting, there’s a sort of tragedy of the commons happening here. When touting by an aggressive minority of street vendors and taxi drivers puts off a large number of tourists, an entire economy of “back office” workers in hotels, restaurants and other downstream tourism industries is seriously threatened. As Ms Webb says, “aren’t there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don’t want to ever return, isn’t that a bad thing for Bali?”.

Doubtless many readers voted against Bali because of rampant Aussie bogans rather than rampant touting, but either way something seems to be killing the golden goose.

Ms Webb wonders if touting has an economic basis. She wonders if “the locals are so impoverished they adopt desperate measures to grab cash when they can, and we as rich Westerners should feel glad they are making a living”. I suspect touting has more to do with competition and old fashioned money-making than with (relative) poverty – the latter sounds like a romanticised western view. It would be fascinating to see any formal studies of the practice but my feeling is the touters in Ubud do better financially than their more restrained peers.

Reading some of the comments on Carolyn Webb’s article, it amazes me how some people see their tourism dollar as helping to lift the host population out of poverty, but when they’re back home wouldn’t buy a garment imported from the same country because it was made in a sweatshop.

View from the main street of Ubud (look the other way and it's all commerce, traffic and touting)

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7 Comments on “Is Bali selling itself short?”

  1. Oz says:

    Where we walk is a personal choice…People also avoid sections of Lygon Street because of touts.

  2. Kat says:

    Maybe I have misunderstood, but surely refusing to buy sweatshop made garments is not a refusal to help the Balinese economy? The problem with sweatshops is that they don’t really support local economies or help the people who work there, they exist to exploit local workers and keep them in poverty while the owners get rich.

    • Alan Davies says:

      From the point of view of the Balinese (or any similar place), is there necessarily any difference on the “exploitation index” between working in a large clothes factory or working in the kitchen of a large hotel?

      If the latter helps the local economy so does the former.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    There’s been some extraordinary attacks on Carolyn Webb since her article was published – see for example this piece by The Enthusiast and this tweet by @mellygoround. Whew!

    But their focus on Webb means they’re missing the key message – it seems most people don’t think Bali is worth visiting anymore. It’s not the only one, but touting is one of the reasons.

  4. wilful says:

    Reading some of the comments on Carolyn Webb’s article, it amazes me how some people see their tourism dollar as helping to lift the host population out of poverty, but when they’re back home wouldn’t buy a garment imported from the same country because it was made in a sweatshop.

    Is this citable, or prejudice?

    I suspect touting has more to do with competition and old fashioned money-making than with (relative) poverty

    Isn’t this a false dichotomy, can’t it be both? Touts are trying to get ahead, they tend to occur in poorer parts of the world.

    I was in Ubud last year, the touting was well under control, it was no bother for me or anyone in my family.

    The Aussie bogan effect in Kuta is a far greater problem.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “Is this citable, or prejudice?”

      Don’t know what your getting at here. I’m simply saying they’re two sides of the same coin – you can’t sensibly be opposed to one and not the other. See my comment above in reply to Kat. I’m personally not opposed to either – working for tourists or in a factory beats the alternative any day.

      “Isn’t this a false dichotomy, can’t it be both? Touts are trying to get ahead, they tend to occur in poorer parts of the world”

      Sure. But I’m saying something simpler – that touts are more likely to be in the upper income band of Balinese earners than not i.e. they’re poor relative to us, but not relative to their peers.

      ‘I was in Ubud last year, the touting was well under control, it was no bother for me or anyone in my family”.

      I was there with my family recently. Didn’t bother us in Ubud (but was more annoying in Denpasar with some people who offered their services as guides then simply wouldn’t go away). Mind you I’m 6’ 4″, maybe touts in Ubud are more persistent with single woman.


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