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Confessions of a fat, exploitative tourist

  • 25 October 2013

With 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