Ice cold Bintangs. Perfectly reeling waves. Temples. Palm leaf offerings. Monkeys. Incense. Cigarettes. Many tourists – particularly Australians – see Bali as little more than a place of cheap villas, complimentary banana pancakes, watered down orange cordial and Nasi Goreng. If it weren’t for the influencers you could almost imagine you were in some eternal summer of Australia in the 80s.
However, though the stereotypes may be loving, they are also lacking. This is one big mistake almost every tourist – whether they’re into Bintangs or guided tours – makes in Bali – projecting their vision of what Bali should be like on it (both in terms of in-person interactions and in terms of photography).
This is demonstrated, among other places, by the Instagram hashtag ‘Uluwatu.’ However, before you throw your Pink Flamingo at us: hear us out. It’s not just our habit of spending our entire week on the Island of Gods day drinking in singlets and thongs that is shown up. It’s also the faux tributes to local ceremony by the more cashed-up ‘cultured’ visitors that become quickly evident.
As is our tendency to train the lens on ourselves rather than the places we visit. Take for instance the ‘top posts’ featured at the top of the page on Instagram when you seach ‘Uluwatu Temple’ (165,970 images have been posted to Instagram with this hashtag, at the time of writing). The hashtag shows the most popular current posts are mostly tourists posing, rather than images of the temple itself.
Similarly, the top posts for the hashtag, ‘Uluwatu’ are telling in what we associate Uluwatu with. Out of 1,482,826 images with the hashtag, ‘Uluwatu’ the first six featured show: resorts, villas, pools and surfing.
To be fair, given the experience most tourists have in Uluwatu, it’s not far off (also, every photo has a subconscious agenda and framing, whether it’s taken in Bali or Bondi). It’s also true you’ll find both phenomena any destination: insert the hashtag Sydney into your Instagram search feature and you’ll be shown photos of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, not cafes, clubhouses and activewear.
But it does open the door to important questions: how does one go about engaging with local cultures in an authentic way? Are you always obliged to interact with local traditions? Does listening to house music at Single Fin count as culture? Is it better to go ‘full basic’ than pretend to pay tribute in a meaningless way? Also: what constitutes, ‘meaningful’?
This is a topic a DMARGE correspondent discussed recently when visiting the most Instagrammable day club in Seminyak – Mrs Sippy.
As our correspondent observed: the percentage of your resort’s local culture rundown that remains in your brain is less relevant than the percentage of the money you spend making its way back into the local community (unless your vivid Temple visit recollection inspires you to quit your job and join an NGO).
“I quickly realised: this is not Fear & Loathing in Seminyak. Much as I wanted to find the dark, superficial heart of Australia’s influencer scene, it’s not there in that way.”
“The sad thing is, while Australians may rave about Mrs Sippy to their close friends, due to the ~basic~ reputation of sipping cocktails with other tourists rather than doing a boutique grass roots guided tour around Ubud… most are sheepish to admit they went to The Land Of The Gods and got drunk by the pool.”
“Perhaps there’s a good reason for this. But there’s also a good reason to celebrate honesty, which is why we’d rate Mrs Sippy over anywhere that pretends to offer a true local experience to assuage your conscience, then offers you much the same inauthentic, touristy experience (see: the token spiritual ceremonies provided in most high end Bali hotels).”
On the other side of the coin, in its sustainable tourism kit, UNESCO recommends “talk[ing] and listen[ing] to the host community and business, identify[ing] and comminictin[ing] sustainable economic local opportunities and empower[ing] the host community by telling their story in the site.”
Why? The theory is, when done right, community engagement on the behalf of tourism operators and hotels can help protect – and exist in a healthy symbiosis with – local culture.
That said, as an article by the World Travel & Tourism Council points out (citing Uluru, Mount Everest and Kyaiktiyo Pagoda as examples), in many places this is not the case, and travellers should do their own research before blindly doing what may be legally allowed (the case study of Uluru demonstrates how legislation often lags behind – or ignores – culture).
“The role these locations play in the lives of locals is far more significant than the fleeting satisfaction a tourist receives from engaging with a place outside of the context locals desire.”
“Travellers committed to responsible and sustainable travel must…