Bali Is Not Your Island Paradise

How The Image of The Island Paradise Portrayed By The West Has Destroyed The Island And Its People

Photo by Alexa West on Unsplash

I recently came across an article about an Instagram influencer who deliberately faked her Bali trip only to prove her followers how easy, in the era of social media, to fool everyone with their luxurious overseas trips. Instead of glazing her tanned skin with the tropical sun on the sands of Bali beaches or a pose of her at a luxurious boutique hotel, Natalia Taylor posts three sets of photos taken in her IKEA local store.

She might have fooled her followers even though she has never been to Bali before, but her image of the island is as crystal clear as her fake Bali photos. It is the Bali image she portrayed in her Instagram post that might be the generalisation of Bali: Luxurious bathtubs with champagne, lush tropical jungle with infinity pools, posh beach clubs with glamorous parties. Above all, Bali is an island paradise.

Just like most social media posts that depict Bali as an island paradise, in a broader scope historically, you might not realise that the West has been falsely and brutally portrayed the island, to the point that it is destroying the island from within itself.

I recently went to visit Bali and spent three weeks on the island. After three years of being absent from visiting the island, my recent trip is nothing more than finding out Seminyak has become more ostentatious. I am appalled only to find out there are more new developments in Bali with the signs on their fences and billboards promising and claiming to build the most luxurious hotels and beach clubs for better and more prominent.

Though the promises of the development deliver inspiring messages for the tourism industry, it isn’t very comforting for me. If it is all the cost of mass tourism, there is actually something bigger lurking underneath the surface. It is the portrayal of the island by West, Western travellers, as the island paradise. The depiction of the island is to the extent of destroying the island and its people.

Returning to Sydney, some asked if I was behaving myself when I was there. They assumed I was there for mischievous behaviour; cheap beer Bintang, magic mushrooms, drugs and parties. though for me Bali has always been my spiritual home for better or worse, their questions and the prejudices didn’t come to bother me, but instead the intention in which the matter originated.

The Origin: Why Do We Visit The Island?

Bali is crowded, and it is small. With its size of 144 kilometres at its widest span and 80 kilometres from the North to the South, it has roughly 750 people per square kilometre. But there are 1.23 million Australians visiting Bali in 2019. For Australians, the image of Bali is the resort island or one for all the island paradise. So it is, with intention, that Bali is portrayed as the island of paradise. The island where lavish parties and even bare-chested drunk Aussies flocked to Kuta alley-way bars.

While South Pacific offers its beauty, travelling in the south pacific is expensive. The West has always been fascinated with the Eastern land. India, with its Hinduism, is exotically enchanting, but its vastness is overwhelming, and it discourages world travellers from exploring the country. So Bali is the answer to the exoticism from the East with qualities both the East and the South. Moreover, Bali seems ‘compact’, an island rich with indigenous culture from mysticism to Hinduism, lush tropical jungles, and the beautiful South West and South East coastlines.

The Image of Bali For Its People

There is a gap between the indigenous perception of the island and the Western imagining of the island. The hole is filled and coloured with multi-layer historical events, political turmoils, and national identity.

From coffee exporter to disturbing history of slavery brought by the Dutch Colony as far as to South Africa in the 17th and 18th century, Bali has been trademarked with many names. But the late trademark as the island paradise, unfortunately, sticks to the island forever.

But the real image of Bali for Balinese, and Indonesians in general, is much more complicated than the Western perception of Bali as International travellers. In the pre-colonial era, with the rulers of the island; from their tenth CE century Kings and Princes, high priests to the lower clergymen, to landlords and commoners. Balinese have been shaped with their caste system, their traditional social hierarchical system.

From the perspective of national identity, There have been changes in Indonesian politics over the years. With the involvement of its first president Soekarno — his mother was Balinese — made Bali as the national epicentre of art and culture marked by the establishment of the presidential palace in Tampak Siring. The politics then shifted with the next president Soeharto felt the urge — by International pressures — to develop Bali as its first tourism model. The image of Bali from their pre-colonial era rulers to their contemporary political mishaps only add the complex layer onto Bali as their indigenous image and more broadly as the International public image of tourism, the island paradise brought by the West to the world.

The Island Paradise: How Did We Get to This End?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ followed by the film adaptation from her book, may have brought the new lingering image of Bali for American visitors. Wherever you are from, whether you’re from the US, Australia or Europe, the Western imagining of Bali is derived from one point end that rooted from the historical beginning of the vision as the island paradise.

From the 1920s — 1930s the Dutch government felt like it was the time to change the image of Bali from the untamed, barbaric widow’s burning ritual perceived by early Dutch explorers when first landed on the island to centralise the image surrounding its culture and village life. From the Dutch government tourism campaign, the image of Bali as Island paradise has become well established in the 50s.

The portrayal of the island in the 1950 film ‘South Pacific’ is the ‘final paradise resort’ for American servicemen after the tiring battles of Pacific. Then in the 1960s, the hippy travellers arrived, contributing the island with their magic mushrooms and surfboards, that brought back their nostalgic childhood of the 50s. From this point forward, Bali tourism has been built by the island paradise plan of development for mass tourism. Travel agencies blossom the ideas from what it had already been in the air of history.

While the indigenous has been with the island for generations over centuries old, the Western imagining is newly imported. On the contrary, the Western version of Bali has been shadowing the island over three centuries that subsides the Balinese meaning of their island.

Why Is It Destroying Bali and Its People?

The West has its contribution to destroying the island as island paradise by luring travellers around the world with its luxurious paradise lifestyle. From the book ‘Snowing In Bali’ by Katryn Bonella published in 2016, the island has been known as the drug trafficking haven. The book reveals the confessions — behind bars — from many notorious drug lords from their lavish lifestyle living in waterfront villas in Bali doomed to the capital sentence executed by firing squads. The recent release of Schapelle Corby who was convicted of smuggling cannabis into Bali is the proof of Australian love affair to bring ‘little accessories’ into the island in the making of the island paradise. Despite its tough law on drug trafficking, illicit drugs have raised concerns for the Indonesian government for decades.

Bali has an agricultural irrigation system. It is known as Subak. It gained international recognition by UNESCO as a manifestation of the local belief ‘Tri Hita Karana’ that implies the functional irrigation system focused utilising canals and weirs dates back to the 9th century. Rice has been Bali’s signature. It has been Bali staple’s food for thousands of years because of their natural volcanic fertile soil. But until greedy foreign investors came and snapped their lands to build more luxurious hotels and villas. Balinese are lured into selling their ‘unproductive’ properties to the investors and the riches — most of them are foreigners. All are developed under the label of the island paradise.

The rise of social media is like moulds growing on the surface of the rotten roots of Bali tourism. The influencers have never had enough of Bali with endless selfies portraying the island like it is their final rest of paradise. Their endorsements of the holiday island prey on those who are thirsty of affordable luxurious holidays, and most of all, it feeds the investors only to build and make-perfect the image of the island paradise.

Though for some Bali is not the island paradise anymore, for everyone else still they want a piece of Bali as their island paradise. Until then, it’s just a matter of time, we will soon face our trouble in paradise.

Sydneysider & storyteller. Raised a traveller and grown-up spiritual. I story-tell travel, mindfulness, spirituality & anything in between.

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