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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Romantic Westerners once sold Balinese culture to the globe. Now locals wonder if their island is becoming a giant theme park

By Keith Loveard

BIG MACS IN THE macrobiotic hills of Ubud? West Bali National Park handed over to a timber magnate for eco-tourism? Similar rumors of development doom have been flying on Indonesia's fabled island ever since the 1930s, when it was first marketed to the world as paradise on earth. True or not, the latest whispers making the rounds point to an increasingly gnawing worry. More and more Balinese are asking: Is our home being turned into a giant theme park?

Nothing perhaps has stoked fears more that Bali is being Disneyfied than the 40-story (140-meter) statue of the mythical Garuda bird that sculptor I Nyoman Nuarta is creating across from the international airport. Once it is completed in a couple of years, you can be sure tourist brochures will describe it as "The Largest in the World!"

The Garuda statue symbolizes a growing divide on the island. Some see the big bird as an apt metaphor for modern Bali. Governor Ida Bagus Oka, for example, compares it favorably to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Others, like environmentalist I Made Suarnatha, see the statue as a crass tourist attraction that will cheapen Bali's heritage and send the message that anything goes. "The people of Bali are shocked by the image this will present," says Suarnatha. "But as with all these projects, developers and officials refuse to discuss it. I am tired of trying to talk when the other side doesn't want to."

A recent history of Bali might well be called The Paradise Paradox. Here we have an Asian culture that was sold to the world by Western romantics, a Hindu island in a mostly Muslim archipelago, a tourist destination that is at once commercial and deeply spiritual. While other famous tropical idylls have succumbed to jet-loads of fun-seekers, Bali culture has proved itself remarkably resilient. Nor have the people utterly lost out to the powerful business elites from the neighboring island of Java. Nonetheless, with the government planning to divide the island into 21 tourist zones, locals and tourists alike are wondering yet again whether Bali's photogenic dances and festivals, beaches and rice terraces can survive intact.

Make no mistake, Bali faces serious environmental problems. In the capital Denpasar, drinking water dwindles to a trickle during the day, owing, say conservationists, to the unquenchable thirst of Nusa Dua, the elite resort. The hotel industry's demand for electricity has pushed forward plans for a controversial geothermal power station at Bedugal, a sacred mountain lake. Nor are the beaches immune to the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy. Sand dredging off the port of Benoa to enlarge an island for yet more hotels has altered the water currents; they are now eating away at the beaches in the old resort area of Sanur. Such developments are supposed to be accompanied by an environmental impact study guaranteeing that the projects are sustainable. "These studies are no more than procedure," says environmentalist Yuyun Ilham. "It doesn't matter how they implement the project. As long as they have the document, it's fine."

There is no debate about the debacle at Candi Dasa, a development on the east coast. Limestone from offshore reefs was used to build the hotels. Oops. With the reefs ground down, the resort beach was left open to the waves. Rather than see their inns slip into the sea, the owners ordered a series of water-breaks that march along the beach like ragged dinosaur teeth. "That was the Balinese people being stupid," says Oka, referring to the development. He denies any current projects are ecologically unsound. "The people are aware that the culture, the people, the beaches are their natural wealth. There is no way they would destroy their environment, though in some cases they may not understand the effects of what they want to do."

In fact, Balinese talk far less about ruined beaches and feeble water pressure than they do about destruction of their way of life, how their culture is being mass-marketed to the world. The government constantly urges the people to smile and make their traditional ceremonies extra lavish to please the visitors, so much so that many communities have run up hefty debts trying to outdo the neighbors. But while they endure modern rituals thrust upon them by a government eager for foreign exchange, the Balinese, as in other famous vacation spots, have a tendency to blame the tourists. Anak Agung Oka is typical in this regard. Agung, 33, is in charge of the community's adat, traditional laws that cover everything from land ownership to relationships. He lives in a village in Legian, now a northerly extension of the tourist tack of Kuta. When skimpily attired tourists venture into town, Agung feels like telling them "not to kill my tradition."

In 1993, Indonesia's Bakrie group unveiled plans to build a resort and golf course at Tanah Lot. Some locals expressed horror that they would be able to see the complex from the nearby temple, one of the holiest on Bali. In a virtually unprecedented display of disenchantment, Hindu priests organized protests. In the end a compromise was worked out. Bakrie moved the hotel back a few hundred meters, though temple-goers can still spy tourists teeing off.

The small victory has been hailed by activists who see in it the seeds of a revolt against the evils of unplanned tourism that is wrecking the environment and undermining Bali's vaunted culture. But the temple protest may have had less to do with religion than jealousy -- namely that outsiders (in this case a Jakartan) were making money at the expense of locals. Long before the resort opened, the path to the holy site was lined with ramshackle shops selling souvenirs to tourists watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean. A double standard? Governor Oka says he asked the same thing. "If this is a protest against outsiders," he asks, "what happens if people outside don't like us?"

The governor has a point. Even Balinese who bemoan the paving of their island acknowledge that they have done handsomely by the planeloads of free-spending tourists. Last year, according to official figures, there were 1.16 million direct arrivals, a big advance on the 738,533 who visited four years earlier. That does not take into account the extra one-million-plus foreigners who don't fly direct, not to mention the weekenders from Java. Whatever the exact figures, Bali's economy is moving far faster than the rest of the country. Balinese proudly buzz around on motorscooters. They rarely have to look far for work. And many are downright enthusiastic about tourism.

Priests happily marry non-Hindus such as Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall for cash. Get-rich-quick artists are willing to overlook the adat laws to sell off ancestral land for big bucks. One Balinese entrepreneur runs two hotels, a restaurant and two discos, where locals and tourists alike pop ecstacy to improve their view of paradise. He is making so much cash, his neighbors speculate that Bali has become a money-laundering hub for drug barons. Balinese are increasingly savvy when it comes to their birthright: most developments are on land that is leased for 30 years. Hence, the hotels, restaurants and homes that smother much of southern Bali will revert to the Balinese.

That has not stopped the griping, of course. Balinese say the Javanese are scooping most of the tourism profits -- and that the Jakarta establishment, including the children of President Suharto, are more interested in "ego-tourism" than in prudent investments; so many hotels are being built that room-price wars erupt from time to time at five-star inns. There are also complaints that developers cheat landowners. Those who refuse to sell at low prices risk having their homes demolished by bulldozers; that is what allegedly happened this year at the Pecatu project of Suharto son Hutomo Mandala Putera. All that aside, compared to their neighbors on Lombok, where foreign and Jakarta investors have mostly shoved the Sasak people out of the tourist game, Balinese are doing well.

In 1937, Miguel Covarrubias wrote the seminal work Island of Bali. In it the Mexican author reckoned that the isle was "doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardization." Years later, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead came to much the same conclusion. Today's jet-fresh tourists might well, too. In Kuta, confused, sun-burned visitors are hassled by day by sellers of cold drinks, copy watches and sunglasses and by night by touts pushing sex and drugs. Here Japanese and Australian girls can find instant romances with bronzed gigolos. In Ubud, tourists buy batik hangings that are rolled out like so much wallpaper. In fact, if tourists have any interest at all in Balinese culture, it is usually limited to buying mass-market folk art or attending a dance show, often at their hotel. Kids, bored with the thought of visiting yet another temple, want theme parks and water slides, such as the Kuta Water Bom park.

Even well-heeled Balinese would rather hang out at Kuta's Hard Rock Cafe than watch a classical legong dance. "There is a very serious middle class here with money to spend," says Stuart, an Australian who has made a good living from the tourist trade for the past 10 years. "Jakarta has its Taman Mini theme park. So why shouldn't Bali have its own? These are diversions, whether you're talking about parks or prostitutes. It's what comes with money."

And yet, amid the hungry commercial rush of Kuta's strip, each day young Balinese women place floral offerings to the gods in front of every doorway. On the sacred day of Nyepi, the entire island shuts down. On lesser feast days, some devoted to such quaint chores as blessing steel, wood and other materials, processions of brightly clad women and men in their Hindu whites take to the streets, delighting foreign onlookers. Sitting by the lotus pond in his garden, Agung says adat remains a big force in the lives of ordinary folk. "Youngsters might experiment a little with Western lifestyles," he says. "But the sanctions of the community are strong enough that they quickly get pulled back in line. The ritual drum that summons people for ceremonies still has a strong charisma."

In a place where most people will tell you that adat and religion come first in the scale of priorities, followed by family and, only then, business, clearly some kind of culture endures. The problem, says local anthropologist Degung Santikarma, is how to define what it is. "We are asking, 'What is authentic?'" he says. "But no one wants to listen. What we have is something fluid." In the meantime, he dismisses foreigners -- "these romantic junkies from the West" -- who stay a month or 12 and start telling the Balinese how to rescue their culture.

Of course, it was foreigners who helped to create much of the Bali that the world knows today. Before the colonial period, the Balinese were better known for frequent internecine wars and a thriving slave trade than for an enlightened culture. A handful of foreigners who lived on the island between the two world wars helped shape Bali's reputation as a cultural destination. The places they chose to settle -- Kuta, Ubud, Sanur -- became the focal nodes of modern tourism. Even as they disseminated images of the so-called last paradise -- best exemplified by the bare-breasted Balinese beauty -- these early residents encouraged art forms that might well have died out otherwise. "From the 1930s there was the appearance of imitation arts," says Prof. I Made Bandem, head of the Indonesian Institute of Arts at Denpasar. "Ritual forms were turned into mass art and sold to the tourists. This served to preserve them from extinction."

One of the most influential foreign residents was Walter Spies, a German painter and musician. He moved to Ubud, encouraged other artists and writers to settle in Bali, and did much to sow the seeds of artistic development in painting, sculpture and dance. When Ronald Reagan visited Bali in 1986, according to American ethnologist Edward M. Bruner, the then U.S. president was shown a kecak dance performance. The choreographer? None other than Walter Spies, who put together the routine with a Balinese troupe back in the 1930s.

When Made Yudha was growing up, his village in the Legian region was nothing but rice fields. Today they have for the most part been swallowed up by the hotels, lodges, restaurants, bars and shops that thrust for 10 kilometers north from Ngurah Rai airport through Kuta. "Development has been too fast," says Made, 35, who now oversees environmental affairs for the village association. "Maybe the government has handed out too many development licenses."

The governor, of course, believes different. Oka says that the 21 tourist zones are part of a master plan that involved discussions with all the affected communities. Each zone, he vows, will be developed to meet the individual needs of the area. Few Balinese believe it. "The government seems intent on pursuing mass tourism," says Suarnatha. "We could be looking for quality tourism, with lower numbers but more lasting value. Now the Bali government is saying every area of the island has to have a resort development. It's crazy."

Crazy or not, the Balinese are making money out of tourism in a style that their compatriots elsewhere in Indonesia can only envy. The changes continuing to press on the island may not suit romantics, and many Balinese admit they worry about what it will mean for their future. "We are not completely content," the governor acknowledges. "The people of Bali have to be aware that with all the changes we have seen, we now have to make corrections and learn to work efficiently. We know that what we enjoy now is our heritage, and we have to give it back to our children and grandchildren in a form they too can enjoy and use."

For the past century, Bali has endured dramatic change. But for every tourist who complains that the real Bali is dead, there is another who is impressed by the island's cultural individuality. Motorbikes and cars are now part of the Balinese legacy -- and their owners take them to the temple for an annual blessing. In the midst of so much change, ritual lives on. Only the Gods of Bali can know how real it all is.

Keith Loveard is an Asiaweek senior correspondent based in Jakarta

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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