Bali in the Global Village

After the New Order government rose to power in 1965, the Western world again became entranced with Bali. But these new foreigners who flocked to Bali’s mythic shores were of a different breed than the cultivated, culture-crazed crew of the 1920s and 30s. It was the turn of the 1970s, and the hippies had landed. With their long, flowing hair, their free-spirited ways, and their feathered and beaded finery stuffed into backpacks, these counter-cultural types found Bali the perfect place to enact their ideas of an alternative lifestyle. Resurrecting the old images of Bali as a center of peace, harmony, ancient wisdom and the infamous love magic, they swarmed the beaches of Kuta and began creating their own society, centered around the worship of sea, sun, spiritual communion and limitless libido. Those were the days when Kuta was still a sleepy-eyed village, dotted with small homestays and simple food stalls, where for only a few dollars a day one could find all the nourishment needed in the form of tropical fruit, tofu, magic mushrooms and hallucinogenic sunsets. As word of Bali’s blissful beachfront bounty spread, other adventurers followed, especially surfers drawn to Bali’s coral-strewn coastline, which soon gained worldwide fame as the wildest place in the East to catch a wave.

But the Balinese themselves greeted this new tribe of travellers with mixed feelings. For many of the kids of Kuta and neighboring Denpasar, the arrival of the foreign freaks was the most exciting thing to happen to Bali since Arjuna and his gang sent those Kurawa boys crying for mercy back in the days of the Mahabarata. At the time, one of the favorite sports of Bali’s teens was to hop on a bike and pedal down to Kuta to gawk at the pale parade of naked flesh stretched out on the sands. And some of the more adventurous youth even dared to join the party, growing their hair long, mastering some guitar chords and a few choice English words, and adopting Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones as new members of the pantheon of gods. But for other Balinese, this new riptide of tourism signaled danger. While the economic potential of playing host to these hordes hungry for Bali’s temptations could not be denied, many Balinese felt that this new prosperity might come at the cost of Bali’s cultural heritage. Concern about the Westernization of Bali’s youth and the decline of traditional morality in face of the lures of free sex and easy money, coupled with an increasing annoyance at those tourists who disrupted temple ceremonies and cremations with their flashing cameras and their skimpy clothing, led to the creation of a new plan for tourist development.

In 1971, the Indonesian government, with the help of the World Bank, drew up the first Master Plan for the Development of Tourism in Bali. To control and organize tourism, which was beginning to rampage haphazardly across the island, the government proposed developing Nusa Dua, an arid and infertile expanse of land on the southern tip of Bali, as a center for luxury tourism. From this beachfront base, the tourists could be bussed to the temples and the art shops and the dance performances and be back in time to drink a cool cocktail and watch the sun slip down over the edge of the ocean. The Nusa Dua concept, it was argued, would accomplish several ends. It would keep tourism at a respectable distance from the everyday life of the Balinese, enabling culture to remain preserved from any negative outside influence. It would control the proliferation of informal industries that had sprung up around the hippie enclaves of places like Kuta, ensuring that only licensed guides, drivers, hotels and vendors had access to the visitors. And, by pricing Bali far out of the range of the average backpacker, it would help bring both needed foreign exchange and a type of traveller more in keeping with the image the authorities wished to project of Bali as part of a modern, prosperous nation.

But for many tourists, Nusa Dua was not enough to satisfy their cravings for authentic Balinese culture. For those who came seeking the ultimate in rest and relaxation, Nusa Dua’s fabulous five star facilities were sure to please even the most jaded jetsetter. But for those who wanted to see and experience more of Balinese life, the wider world of Bali beckoned. And the Balinese as well were determined to cut for themselves a bigger slice of the tourism pie than the controlled corporate environment of Nusa Dua would allow. To address these concerns, a group of Balinese came up with their own agenda: to make Bali into a showcase for cultural tourism. This new kind of tourism, it was hoped, would let the Balinese preserve their traditions while still turning a profit. It would bring Bali into the global era while still preserving its village feel – a position dubbed by its developers as “glocalisation.” And, according to most Balinese, the idea has worked. Fueled by an influx of funds from the tourist business, today’s Balinese hold rituals and festivals more elaborate than ever before, and dancers, painters, musicians and craftsmen have become respected members of an expanding Balinese middle class. Cultural tourism has also led to an increasing sense of local identity and pride, a certainty that “Balineseness” is something valuable not only within the borders of one tiny island but on the wider world market. Of course, this is not to say that there have been no bumps on the road to peaceful coexistence between the Balinese and their guests. Not all tourists are interested in culture, and the swinging singles scene of Kuta still sends shivers down the spines of the more conservative members of Bali’s traditional establishment. And with the centers of tourism concentrated in the south of the island, access to this new wealth remains unevenly distributed, with many of those living off the beaten track in East and North Bali still living in quite tenuous financial circumstances. Under the New Order government of President Suharto, many Balinese complained that they were marginalized from the benefits that tourism brought, for many of the hotels and tourist businesses were owned by a select circle of Suharto’s family and friends. And the Balinese are still working to find a balance between culture and tourism that is sustainable and acceptable to all segments of society. Complaints still arise over cases deemed to be “cultural harassment,” when tourism transgresses the boundaries of traditional values. A project to build a temple near the sacred temple of Tanah Lot was vehemently opposed by both conservative Hindus and local non-governmental organizations. A hotel advertisement that featured a golf ball perched atop a canang offering to the gods led to a protracted debate over the need to protect religious values from commercial desecration. The use of sacred Barong and Rangda figures as decorations for a disco and karaoke bar provoked the same kind of outcry, while the well-publicized plans of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, both non-Hindus, to marry on Bali in a Hindu ceremony had Balinese debating the extent to which holy traditions could be shared with non-Balinese. And many Balinese have become suspicious of the outsiders who have come to the island seeking a share of the wealth that these Balinese feel properly belongs to them. Some have taken these kinds of tensions as signs of cultural disintegration, as signals that Bali is becoming “destroyed,” “lost” or torn apart. But one could also cast these conflicts in a different light: as crucial conversations about the meaning of traditional culture in the modern world. By discussing their heritage in the pages of the mass media and in local cultural organizations, Balinese have become vitally aware of the importance that their history plays in determining their future. By discussing and debating their culture, the Balinese are making essential preparations for entering the next millennium and facing the challenges it is sure to bring.