The luxury tourist industry in Bali is thriving, with thousands heading to the island each year for 5* experiences – often at 3* prices. But what impact is it having on the local communities?
In 2012, I was one of nearly three million foreign tourists to arrive in Bali, Indonesia. Escaping the crassness of Kuta, I followed in the footsteps of many, and made my way to Ubud, the artistic capital of the island. The town remains heavily populated by tourists, but has a distinctly chilled vibe – walk for ten minutes to the west of the affectionately named ‘Monkey Forest Road’, which runs through the centre, and the surroundings take on a much more rural, authentic feel. It was on one of these ‘short walks’ that my boyfriend and I became rather lost, and had to enlist the assistance of a local walking-tour guide, a number of times, for pointers in the right direction. The guide’s name was Wayan, unsurprisingly – a popular Balinese name, Wayan means ‘first born’, and it seemed that every other Balinese we met laid claim to it. Highly confusing. Wayan eventually took pity on us, as we hopelessly walked around in circles searching for the rice terraces, and agreed to take us on a tour for a small fee, even though it was his day off. It was just as well he did – even if Ed and I had managed to find our way there, we would definitely have struggled on the way home.
The route down to the banks of the Ayung River took us past the Four Seasons hotel – a truly spectacular resort sporting a ‘suspended’ lotus pond, and forty-two private villas. The hotel is surrounded by the emerald rice terraces hugging the river, which were brought to life on screen in the 2010 film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Wayan told us, as he led us downriver, that many of his usual clients come from hotels such as these. It was easy to see why people are prepared to pay a premium for exclusive access to these incredible surroundings.
As we were walking, we came across a gate, where we were met by a brow-beaten elderly woman, to whom Wayan handed a small amount of money. On enquiry, he explained that all of the guides who lead tours in that area have to pay a small subsidy to local farmers in order to cross their land. In some cases, this was up to half of the wages Wayan was paid to lead the tour. Whilst not ideal for Wayan and the other guides, it was a clear example of how the tourism industry can benefit certain individuals in the local community.
Luxury tourism in Bali is a growing industry, with several high-end hoteliers adding and expanding their portfolio around the island over the last few years. The latest of these, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, announced plans for a new resort earlier this year, which is due to be finished in 2014. Whether this is the right type of development for countries such as Indonesia remains to be seen. Before this trip, I had mainly associated the budget travel industry with negative impact on the local community – younger travellers, not totally unlike myself, who have little appreciation for culture, and rather more for the western drinking culture which has been imported into a growing number of countries around the world. Many are of the opinion that alternative tourism, including backpacking and ecotourism, offer far greater opportunities for local employment and positive environmental impact, as well as preventing the flow of economic gains away from towns and villages.
Towards the end of our tour, Wayan looked back along the river somewhat nostalgically, and told us how lucky we were to have visited Ubud when we did. Much of the land we had just covered on our tour had recently been bought by large, luxury hoteliers, with a view to building more Four Seasons-esque resorts in the near future and, very soon, tours would no longer be allowed to take this route. Wayan would have to look elsewhere for work, which may even mean moving out of Ubud, and away from his friends and family. Whilst some were able to benefit from the industry, it was clear that others weren’t so fortunate. Sadly, it seems that the only people who will be able to take advantage of this beautiful landscape in years to come will be those who can afford to pay for the privilege. No more impromptu tours for navigationally challenged travellers.
Tourism is one of the main drivers of the Indonesian economy, and the development of the luxury tourism industry does not look to be slowing down any time soon. With this in mind, perhaps further energy needs to be channelled into finding a balance between the 5* profiteers and the needs of those living in the local communities, in order to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from what is truly an incredible country.
Image by Zahra Warsame