Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Confessions of a fat, exploitative tourist


Suitcase with stickers sitting under a palm treeWith the exception of one great-grandfather, my brothers and I are the first in our family to have travelled the world for purposes other than migration. We've all lived overseas at times, and both of my brothers' partners come from other places. Even my parents have taken some inspiration from us and started doing their own non-migration-style travel.

It's a weird privilege when you look at it in those terms — something that seems culturally normal is actually a historical anomaly. It's now less expensive to travel outside Australia that to holiday within it. Flying is the cheapest it's been, and the cheapest it's ever likely to be. And the Australian dollar is strong.

So what does that mean for the places we are now able to travel to en masse? It means something, especially because those who live in the places we travel to are often people who can't travel themselves, people who can't escape the monotony of home life even if they wanted to.

Sometimes when I see the inequity of my traveling, when I register my complicity in a system that is contingent on global inequalities, I am reminded of Jamaica Kincaid's 1988 book A Small Place. It's a fictional memoir about how Antigua's colonial past is lived out through contemporary tourism. In it, the tourist's perspective of a beautiful, smiling Antigua is met with the scathing voice of the formerly colonised, who explains the ramifications of every interaction the tourist has, and deduces the inherent exploitation of the tourist-local relationship.

So I was in Bali recently being a fat, exploitative tourist and it didn't feel all that good. I was there to see some of a writers festival, which I did, and which was incredible. But I felt slightly unpleasant being there, slightly wrong, because all of the restaurants we ate at were basically for tourists and expats — people with money.

To the credit of the festival organisers, events were packed with international and Indonesian audiences alike, but back in the tourist town, the only Balinese in sight were those serving us. Without natural resources, Bali's main industry is tourism, and so in some ways, the economy depends on people like me eating at restaurants like that.

Too many people who happen to live in the tourist regions (which are ever expanding — 700 hectares of land are cleared each year to build tourist infrastructure) are forced into some kind of tourist labour, even if they're not interested in it, or good at it. So while you can get a cheap massage almost anywhere, it's less likely that a trained practitioner will massage you than an inexperienced young person who will make it up as they go. Which is not to critique the standards of massage in Bali, but rather the perhaps exploitative expectations of tourists.

One person told me the story of going out to a gallery in a rural area and seeing the same man harvesting rice with a buffalo that they'd seen a few months earlier. When they asked the gallery owner if it was harvest time again, he was told that the man in the rice patty was not actually harvesting rice, he was just employed to look like he was. A spectacle for the tourists. Which I'm pretty sure is the most alienated labour possible.

Where the tourist attraction to Bali has always been its beautiful natural environment and friendly, spiritual culture, both of these attractions are suffering under the impact of mass tourism. While some argue that any employment for locals is good employment, the poverty rates in Bali have in fact increased in recent decades, as has the disparity between rich and poor.

Bali now has the second highest percentage of disadvantage in Indonesia, after Jakarta. In seaside areas, coral reefs have been destroyed, and in rural areas, water is often redirected from rice patties towards guest houses. Deforestation has impacted the local environment, bringing on drought. Drought inflates prices.

Kincaid writes that the 'natives', the local residents of a tourist destination, are likely to hate the tourists, even when they are smiling, for the simple inequity of the transaction. She writes, 'Every native would like to find a way out ... But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor ... They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.'

What, then, to do with the privilege of travel? Guilt is not necessarily a useful political gesture. And it's not as though people are going to stop travelling overseas any time soon. So maybe we should just find somewhere else to mess up.

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, The Lifted Brow, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Suitcase image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Bali, Indonesia



submit a comment

Existing comments

How times have changed for Aussies travelling abroad! In the seventies (and earlier decades - so last century!) our cultural cringe was such that it was incumbent on twenty-somethings to travel to Europe, particularly England. It was part of a rite of passage. With the strong dollar, and cheaper airfares, more possibilities have opened up and we are travelling in greater numbers. Respecting our destination is important. Many countries we travel to are poor and may view us as insufferably privileged. I guess we need to be respectful...and remember.

Pam | 24 October 2013  

Why is someone being paid to act as though they were harvesting rice any worse than people who dress up and reenact historical events or work in theme parks??

Rose Drake | 25 October 2013  

Yes, I know what you mean, Ellena. I went to Bali twice in the late 80s/early 90s, and haven't been back since. I just cannot bring myself to do so, writers' festivals and yoga festivals notwithstanding! Even back when I went, there was a disgusting level of inequality. And the Balinese must just look on us with immense and justified disdain. I that I left some loose change on the table in my hotel room, which the room attendant dutifully piled up into neat piles. Not a rupiah missing. I then realised that that 'loose change' was a week's wages. I still hate myself for that. You also missed the pollution problem - I saw a documentary on the ABC about the rubbish and sewerage problems there too. No, I just can't bring myself to go back.

Lydia | 25 October 2013  

'Paddy' not 'Pattie "! The tourist is not the exploiter in Asia. Rather it is the corruption of local government and its administrators who exploit their own people while they march off to their private bank, taking the lion's share of national income (including foreign aid monies) with them. Perhaps the tourists at least make life a little better for some of the poor - their own people are certainly not going to!

alexis | 25 October 2013  

Fair enough - such feelings of "wirla" (queasiness that something is not quite right - check out Ailsa PIPER's column on Indigenous languages)! Feeling one is a part of the exploitation. Salutary. My wife and I had our first and probably last visit to Bali about three years ago - staying in Ubud (pre-literary festivals). And later the same year another first/last to Phuket. In both places we followed the conventions (read on-line by my wife before going - re tipping - how much and why). We employed drivers, went cycling - were happy to pay for cultural guides whatever the fee - and added in hand to those involved over and above the set fee at the hotel booking offices. And we enjoyed conversations with the people in those contexts - some genuine conversations in which the guard was let down - when we were permitted to see aspects at least of the real person - someone just like us! There is a conundrum as you say - to go and be exploitative or be exploited! That is the question - whether 'tis nobler to simply stay at home and learn nothing or to go and become informed.

Jim KABLE | 25 January 2014  

Similar Articles

Bikie laws sicken civil liberties

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 28 October 2013

Political commentator Malcolm Farr, a bike enthusiast, noted that many bikies are indeed 'frauds', 'thugs' and 'grubs'. The medicine on offer in Queensland and other states, however, is bound to kill that frail patient known as civil liberties. What is being touted is a police state response, rather than a measured, legal program. And broad brush strokes in legal responses tend to be disastrous.