Bali and the Double-Edged Sword of Globalization

I recently returned from a month-long trip in South East Asia that included a week in Bali. The whole trip was an amazing experience that will be fodder for a couple of more blogs. However, some of my biggest impressions were made in Bali:

  1. How well Bali still retains its unique culture and background
  2. How rapidly certain parts are being homogenized and paved over by the usual global resort and shopping brands.

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Barong fights Rangda in a Balinese traditional dance performed by professional dance company.
[SOURCE:] © 2013 Greg Chase, under Creative Commons License, use with attribution.

Barong and Rangda costumes being delivered via parade between local Balinese temples as part of festival.
[SOURCE:] © 2013 Greg Chase, under Creative Commons License, use with attribution

This was my first visit to Bali. Before my visit, I knew very little about this Indonesian island other than it was a famous “get far away from it all” vacation spot. I invite any Balinese, frequent visitors, or expat transplants to comment on what I have to say in this blog if I overgeneralize.

One of the best things I did for my first visit to Bali was not to book an all-inclusive tour, but to create my own. This let me sample a few different areas to stay in Bali. To link my itinerary together, I hired a local driver who goes by the name Putu – a common Balinese name for first born children. It’s my interaction with Putu that inspired this blog.

I found Putu via Trip Advisor. He impressed me by having nearly 100 5 star ratings. Linked to his Trip Advisor profile is his blog of several suggested itineraries for driving tours, a couple of which he was willing to modify to fit my specific plans.

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Putu, my hired driver in Bali, tours us through a traditional Balinese village.
[SOURCE:] © 2013 Greg Chase, under Creative Commons License, use with attribution

In our many discussions while driving, Putu told me the story of how he ended up posting his blog on Trip Advisor. Putu used to be an employed driver with one of the resorts, and one day he drove for a businessman from Malaysia. This man changed Putu’s life with a suggestion of posting a blog on Trip Advisor. It wasn’t long before Putu started getting enough independent business that he was able to quit his resort job and fully devote himself to his business. Now he also employs 3 other drivers in this family, and his wife does scheduling and client communication from home while also watching their child. He’s very proud that he will be able to afford to pay for his child’s education. This is a big deal in Bali since many people cannot afford to pay for uniforms, books, and tuition for even primary school since even state run schools require families to pay to attend. In Bali, being able to afford a private school is important to them since most native Balinese are Hindu, but the government run schools are Islamic.

Putu charges the typical daily rate for driving in Bali – the same rate the resorts will charge you for drivers, and the many would-be drivers who solicit you on the streets when you walk around the resort areas of Bali. “Taxi sir?”

The difference is that Putu gets referrals primarily from Trip Advisor, so he’s able to pre-book a pipeline of clients before they even arrive in Bali – quite a contrast from hoping and waiting for business to appear in any day. Putu was telling me that he’s facing a complex decision about how to expand his business since this would mean hiring people outside his family. He’s concerned about finding drivers who will maintain the same level of quality that his family members can provide since his 5 star rating is so important to his business.

In a nutshell, Putu’s business is benefitting significantly from globalization via contacts he’s making through the social media site Trip Advisor. What was interesting to me, however, was Putu’s observation about the negative effects of what globalization is doing to spoil Bali’s environment and culture for its people, as well as paving over the uniqueness that visitors are hoping to experience when they visit Bali.

Now Bali is far from being a pristine undisturbed tribal area. There were lots of tourists from neighboring Asian countries and tons of Australians, both visitors and expats. Some of the hotels I stayed in have a long venerable history. In fact, partially out of concern for maintaining unique Bali environmental and cultural features, 3 UNESCO sites were recently added in Bali, such as the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces.

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The UNESCO protected Jatiluwih Rice Terraces in Bali.
[SOURCE:] © 2013 Greg Chase, under Creative Commons License, use with attribution.

Compared to Phuket, Thailand, which I visited shortly afterwards, development of Bali has progressed much slower. However it appears this is changing rapidly. A drive through the town of Seminyak in the south of Bali shows tons of construction of high end, global brand name hotels, and a shopping strip with the usual global luxury brand names. All of these are going in with little more than a nod to Balinese culture and architecture. In fact, the one hotel I stayed in at Seminyak on my trip didn’t even employ Balinese. Most of the staff seemed to be from other islands in Indonesia.

Putu tells me that even professional Balinese who used to be able to afford property in more populated south can no longer buy since so many foreigners are now buying up land for private villas.

So there you have the double edge sword of globalization: (1) opportunity for locals who can adapt and take advantage of new ways to find business via the Web and social media; (2) threat of homogenization that has already wiped out so much culture and uniqueness around the world.

Comments

  1. Very nice post. Bali has been on my bucket list for two reasons – I like islands and and Hawaii gets old for CA folks pretty soon, it has a Hindu past and present that I am intrested in.

    On the globalizations negative side it is a tough dance but I think social media can be utilized to shame the worst offenders but the problem is that will be after the fact. Real reform can only come from the govt which is often in the pockets of capitalism everywhere. Even locally preserving Lake Tahoe has been a constant fight.

    • Pankaj,
      You are very correct. It was this interesting positive and negative that made me pose the question here. The wonderful uniqueness that Bali has can be considered “natural and cultural” capital, and it has significant value. I shudder to specifically quantify or financialize that value as I think it should be preserved.

      I liked the fact that my driver, Putu, understood the value of Bali’s uniqueness in terms of how it impacted his business as well as his way of life.

      Another interesting observation that I didn’t write in the blog is that campaigning for regional elections for Bali’s head of government were going on. Putu told me that he, and many other Balinese would not be voting as they saw all the candidates as in bed with monied interests, who would not be protecting the interests of the people.

  2. Thanks for sharing!

  3. you are correct,
    my opinion is from the start, Balinese have evinced an ambivalent attitude towards tourism, which they perceived as being once filled with the promise of prosperity and yet fraught with danger. The foreign invasion was seen to contain the threat of “cultural pollution” which may destroy those very traditions which provided Bali’s main attraction for tourists. The major contributions of foreigners has perhaps been to make the Balinese aware of the fact that they are the lucky owners of something precious and perishable called “culture”.

    • Dear Regent Bali,
      Thank you for the nice comment. My experience is that the areas of Sanur and Ubud seemed to be balancing the tourism vs. tradition conflict better than I saw in Seminyak.

      BTW, very beautiful hotel you have. I also had a very nice experience staying at the Puri Santrian in Sanur.

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  1. […] my recent blog about Bali, I expressed my sadness about how the uniqueness of Bali was being paved over by homogenous global […]

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