Julia Roberts did it wrong when she traveled to Bali to “eat, pray, love.” Most of the island’s three million annual visitors come to do just two things: party and get “blessed.” With Hindu temples in seemingly equal proportion to rooftop bars, Bali is a spring break hotspot. Travel agencies offering “exotic adventure tours” and vendors selling sarongs and cheap souvenirs all pander to such visitors, creating a warped performance of Indonesian culture.
In Bali, cultural appropriation drives economic growth.
The term “cultural appropriation” simply describes the adoption or use of aspects of one culture by people from another. The term got a bad reputation last semester at Yale when it was used to describe a different phenomenon: cultural misappropriation. The line between the two is narrow, but there is a division nonetheless. At what point does appropriation become misappropriation? In my mind, it all has to do with intent. One who wears a Halloween costume to mock another culture ought to be told off. But it is hard to argue that a tourist who loves Indonesian fried rice and visits a Hindu temple dressed in a traditional batik has malicious intent. Rather, tourism is a form of appropriation that can allow us to celebrate one another’s culture.
What is regrettable however is that the Balinese have deliberately adjusted their culture in order to cater to foreign tastes. We see this phenomenon worldwide. In Shanghai, westernized Chinese food (think fortune cookies and chop suey) has become wildly popular among wealthy expats. In Indonesia, the popular “Balinese Monkey Dance,” lacks any real historical significance, and serves solely as a performance piece for Western tourists.
To me, there seemed to be a disconnect between what the Balinese think visitors want to see and what they actually want to see. I certainly didn’t take a 30-hour flight to drink Starbucks iced mochas on the beach, or to see a staged “cultural” performance. I came for the real deal.
But I soon realized that there are plenty of foreigners who do come to Bali for henna tattoos, cheap souvenirs and a new Facebook cover photo. It’s simple supply and demand: Utterly dependent on foreign visitors, the tourism industry has adapted to provide whatever is desired.
Authentic or not, the economic value of tourism in Bali is indisputable. The industry accounts for the largest portion of the island’s GDP, employing tens of thousands of people. As a result, Bali’s standards for education, nutrition and infant mortality far outperform Indonesia’s averages.
If you travel farther inland, away from the resorts and seaside restaurants, you’ll see a very different Bali. Dirt roads lined with small convenience stores and Hindu temples are interspersed with the occasional street cart vendor. Devoid of big hotel conglomerates, infrastructure outside of Bali’s coastal areas is weak.
The sarong sellers and henna artists depend on narrow-minded tourists who come to Bali for “cultural” experiences. In many Balinese temples, squatters earn their livelihoods by selling things to visitors. At Goa Gajah, a Hindu temple, I was unwittingly “blessed” by a woman who splashed holy water on my head and then demanded payment.
So is Bali just an unfortunate casualty of globalization? Though we usually think of the phenomenon in a positive light, it seems that foreign exposure has done nothing but spoil local culture. But perhaps, one could argue, $6 billion in tourism revenue can justify such crime.
So to the spring breakers who head to Bali, Cabo, Ibiza and the like: don’t just travel to “eat, pray, love.” Tourists play an important role in shaping the development of such regions. In order to retain the integrity of the world’s cultures, it is crucial we seek out authenticity. Cultural appropriation is a powerful tool. If done responsibly, it has the potential to drive economic growth and facilitate cross-cultural exchange.