There were an astonishing 972 reader comments by 5.30 pm Tuesday on this story in The Age by journalist Carolyn Webb, Bali: why bother?, bemoaning the unwanted attentions from street touts she attracted on a visit to Ubud earlier this month:
Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?”
Even more extraordinary, over 37,000 readers had already voted on-line in answer to this question posed by the newspaper: “Do you agree with the author that Bali isn’t worth visiting?”. I’ve never seen numbers this large in response to any story in The Age before – it seems readers are very, very interested in the topic of Bali.
There’s no way I’m going to trawl through close to 1,000 comments, but my random sample indicates the weight of opinion is solidly against the author. She does herself no favours with a few naïve and possibly even condescending remarks. The weight of opinion from commenters is she should get over it and accept that touting is just the way it is across large parts of south-east Asia. If you don’t like it, they say, then don’t go there. Many argue that touting is an inevitable response to poverty – desperate people are simply trying to put food on the table – and should be accepted as part of what Bali is.
The Age must’ve noticed the depth of feeling in the comments – early in the afternoon the paper posted this counter-perspective, Being taken for a ride in Bali isn’t always such a bad thing, by the acting editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Woolveridge. Even this article generated a respectable 145 comments by 5.30 pm
But it seems most of the “silent majority” – that’s the 36,000 or so who don’t offer a comment but are sufficiently motivated to vote in the online poll – actually agree with Ms Webb. By 5.30 pm a decisive majority (70%) had voted that Bali actually isn’t worth visiting. That’s a very large number and suggests Bali has a serious image problem with the Fairfax demographic (and remember that Ms Webb’s article is about “Eat, Pray, Love” Ubud, not “drunks and druggies” Kuta).
No matter what your personal feelings are about touting, there’s a sort of tragedy of the commons happening here. When touting by an aggressive minority of street vendors and taxi drivers puts off a large number of tourists, an entire economy of “back office” workers in hotels, restaurants and other downstream tourism industries is seriously threatened. As Ms Webb says, “aren’t there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don’t want to ever return, isn’t that a bad thing for Bali?”.
Doubtless many readers voted against Bali because of rampant Aussie bogans rather than rampant touting, but either way something seems to be killing the golden goose.
Ms Webb wonders if touting has an economic basis. She wonders if “the locals are so impoverished they adopt desperate measures to grab cash when they can, and we as rich Westerners should feel glad they are making a living”. I suspect touting has more to do with competition and old fashioned money-making than with (relative) poverty – the latter sounds like a romanticised western view. It would be fascinating to see any formal studies of the practice but my feeling is the touters in Ubud do better financially than their more restrained peers.
Reading some of the comments on Carolyn Webb’s article, it amazes me how some people see their tourism dollar as helping to lift the host population out of poverty, but when they’re back home wouldn’t buy a garment imported from the same country because it was made in a sweatshop.