Paradise at the Crossroads

Bali Puppet

Twenty years since the highly acclaimed Bali: Paradise Created was published, Adrian Vickers reflects on Bali's battles to balance tourism with its fragile beauty.

In the 1990s, a leading Australian publisher claimed that Australian fiction authors were not reaching international audiences, after she did not see books by Australian authors in the bookshops of Singapore airport. If she had been looking at non-fiction, she would have found a number of Australian writers on Asia, a field in which we have been consistently successful.

Twenty years ago, my book, Bali: A Paradise Created, was published by Penguin Australia, and was soon taken up by the international publisher Periplus, ensuring that it appeared in bookshops throughout the region. It has remained in print for 20 years.

The book deals with the multiple layers of images of Bali, and the mirror of Western images of Bali and Balinese self-images. The final chapter brings the two images together in examining Indonesian notions of Bali, portraying them as a complex blending of the two in the policy of cultural tourism; the idea that people come to Bali to share in the experience of a reified version of the arts and ritual life of the people. The book was influenced by Foucault’s and Said’s concepts of discourse, but written also under the influence of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a model of how to render the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints in history.

Readers are unpredictable. I thought almost every sentence of my book was raising historically contentious issues, but it was praised for being objective. Reviewers missed the irony inherent in the commentary on Western views of Asia. Given that the book was a stinging critique of Westerners who claim to know Bali, I was dismayed to learn that it was a great hit among the expatriate community living on the island.

Balinese readers picked up on the contentious parts, perhaps too well. One member of a royal family is supposed to have been outraged at the account of how the rulers of Bali traded slaves, although when he pointed this terrible slander out to his parents, the response was, “Yes, of course, and what’s the problem?” Another highly-placed family is rumoured to have suppressed the Indonesian translation of the book because it raises the delicate issue of what their forefathers did during the struggle for independence from the Dutch.

Readers have complimented me on the positive image of Bali presented in Paradise Created. But it was written mainly in 1988, and I had not been back to Bali for two years before that, meaning that I had missed out on one of the most rapid periods of intensification of tourism in the island’s history. When I went back to Bali in 1989, it was almost unrecognisable: traffic jams made the small streets barely walkable, while huge and expensive resort complexes spread well beyond the areas originally designated under a heritage management plan, as planning laws went by the board in the rush to make ready cash.

Since 1989, the image of Bali has undergone another series of transformations. The Indonesian Government has struggled to control the image-making process through cultural tourism. While most Balinese pay an almost doctrinal respect to this policy, few tourists see the island this way. Since the 1990s, the emphasis in tourist promotions is on resort tourism, with its spas, massages and promises of luxury. Cultural experiences take a back seat to beauty treatments, or to white-water rafting, scuba diving and banana-boat rides, meaning that much that is unique to Bali has been flattened into the generic perception of a tropical resort that could be anywhere near the equator. Bali itself has not helped prevent the dilution of its image, as Balinese-style pavilions and carvings have become ubiquitous in tropical resorts from Singapore to Mexico.

A mark of the island’s generic status was an attempt by Balinese tourist authorities to make Bali a twin resort island to Thailand’s Phuket. Unfortunately for Bali, this proposal came just as the events took place that were to change Bali’s image forever, the bombings of 2002 and 2005. In much of the literature on the island that has appeared since 2002, the island has been rendered synonymous with terrorism and suffering, which is why Phuket rejected the idea, worried that a link with Bali would lower its reputation. Ironically, Phuket’s image has survived the 2004 tsunami and the island’s proximity to the violent struggles affecting Thailand’s southern Muslim population.

Recently, Bali’s tourist industry has recovered from the bombings, but just as the world economic crisis has cut back tourism. Bali struggles on, its cultural performances as alluring as ever, its seductive glimpses of rice fields still captivating, but the task of the next few decades is to sustain the island’s fragile environment against the demands of tourism.

Adrian Vickers is professor of South-East Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.