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. Read the rest of this entry »


Would we build another Opera House?

The other 'Melbourne Opera House' - Powlett St East Melbourne

An argument I see frequently in relation to massive infrastructure projects like High Speed Rail (HSR) is that we should simply get on and build them because they’re ‘visionary’ and ‘nation building’. For example, a commenter recently likened investment in HSR to the decision to build the Sydney Opera House. If cost-benefit analysis had been done on the Opera House, he argued, it would’ve been still-born. Thus we would’ve been denied the enormous tourism revenue and the boost to national pride provided by this magnificent building.

I expect he’s right. Formal cost-benefit analysis would probably be hard-pressed finding that the benefits of any opera house exceed the costs, either then or now. There’s therefore always a chance if you look too hard at the costs and the risks you could end up missing out on some whopping future benefits. However the problem with this sort of argument is that it’s based on hindsight. We know for a fact from the perspective of 2011 that the Opera House is a grand success. But cost-benefit analysis isn’t retrospective, it’s prospective – it helps us to evaluate projects before we commit to building them.

Here’s a “thought experiment”. Consider a contemporary proposal to spend a fantastic sum of money on (say) The Melbourne Opera House (insert your city of choice). Imagine an architect of Frank Gehry’s stature (but please not Frank himself!) was asked to ignore the cost and come up with a design that would create an “international icon”. The promise is the building would “put Melbourne on the map” and more than repay the preposterous cost over the years in tourism revenue and civic pride. Of course while it would nominally function as an opera house, what we’d really be building is a piece of architecture so powerful, distinctive and attractive, that it would be as iconic as……well, the Sydney Opera House.

The trouble is the probability of achieving this vision is close to zero. No one knows what the recipe for international icons is. We can look back and more or less pick out the vital decisions and factors that made the Sydney Opera House the symbol it is today, but doing it prospectively is close to impossible. We’d almost certainly end up with a Melbourne Opera House that was functionally compromised and cost billions more than it needed to, but which nobody outside Victoria gave a second glance.

Actually even if the Sydney Opera House planners knew with certainty in the late 1950s what we know now, I’m not sure building it would’ve been the “right” decision to take at the time. The Sydney Opera House didn’t instantly become an international symbol so most of the tourism and “icon” benefits, which probably didn’t kick in seriously until at least the 1980s, would’ve been heavily discounted back to the time the decision was taken to proceed. The net present value of the benefits might not have exceeded the cost of construction which, let’s not forget, was very high. Read the rest of this entry »


Melbourne Bike Share – how can the Government save face?

There is a near universal consensus that Melbourne Bicycle Share is misconceived and almost certain to fail. Most attention has focussed on the compulsory helmet requirement but as I noted last week, this is a program that addresses a need that doesn’t exist and is designed in a way that will almost guarantee failure.

But no one wants a fiasco. The Government wants to save face, the RACV wants to keep its management contract and no one wants to see Melbourne’s reputation damaged by the failure of the blue Bixis.

So, I propose some radical surgery for Melbourne Bicycle Share.

First, forget about targeting the scheme at CBD workers running short errands. Reposition it instead as a service to promote tourism. The tariff should be turned around completely to support longer hire periods. For example, something more tourist-friendly, like $20 for the first two hours and $5/hr thereafter – hence $30 for 4 hours – would be close to the mark, although the tariff should be set with the goal of operating on a commercial basis.

Second, the Government should change the law to give anyone who can produce a valid out-of-State ID the right to ride a blue bike without a helmet. The exemption would not apply to any other bicycles and would be justified on the basis of supporting tourism. Tourism has been used to support Sunday trading in the dark and distant past when shopping on the Sabbath was a sin, so it’s an old and much used workhorse. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Melbourne Bicycle Share all spin?

I hope I’m proven wrong but I can’t help feeling Melbourne Bicycle Share is much more about political spin than about transport.

The PR material indicates the scheme is pitched at short-distance and short-duration travellers “running an errand at lunch or going across town for a meeting or lecture”. It extends “your public transport options and makes the CBD more accessible than ever before”.

The big question to my mind is what exactly is the need that this scheme is filling? Or more precisely, what is the justification for the Government subsidy it requires?

The very idea of a CBD is that it is walkable and if the trip’s too far then travellers take public transport. In fact public transport in Melbourne’s CBD, where we have the choice of the city rail loop and a dense tram system, is pretty good by world standards. Quite simply, the CBD doesn’t need share bicycles for transport.

I can’t see a lot of sense, either, in spending public money to take off-peak passengers away from public transport – that’s the very time when the system has spare capacity and should earn extra revenue with minimal extra cost. And why subsidise walkers to ride instead?

I’m not in any event confident that Melbourne Bicycle Share is even going to work. Read the rest of this entry »