Hidden Costs of Tourism; A cost to culture

Here at Real Indonesia, we’re not just passionate about tourism. We’re passionate about doing it right. Which is why we’re so excited to team up with both our local partner, Five Pillar Foundation in West Bali, and the International Association for Community Development (IACD) for the Community Development Practice Exchange in Bali in October.

In the lead-up to this exclusive event, we’re going to be providing some in-depth coverage of some of the hidden costs associated with tourism that may not always register on our radars.

Our first instalment investigates the impacts tourism has on local culture.

On the surface, it seems like tourism is a boon for cultural exchange. After all, there is no better way to learn or discover something than by seeing it up close. But, as beneficial as tourism has been in opening up new cultures to the wider world, there have been negative side effects.

In his 2003 study of Malta, Bill Bramwell found that when local people entertain tourists, they begin to adapt to tourists’ needs. As a result, attitudes and values can begin to shift, and local communities can begin to lose their sense of cultural identity. This can often be apparent in younger generations, who can sometimes seek to ‘copy’ or obtain items the more affluent visitors possess. Prompting some to opt for Western style clothes over traditional cultural clothing or failing to continue to practice and observe traditional customs and skills passed down from elder generations.

This loss of identity is only compounded by the issue of cultural commodification. Cultural commodification is the process where a sacred or culturally significant location, practice or symbol becomes commodified and marketed as a gimmick for tourists. While the sale of souvenirs and the presentation of cultural displays is an important part of tourism and can be a valuable tool for cultural exchange, if vendors and artisans begin to alter or change these cultural items and performances to more closely align with visitors’ tastes, it can run the risk of trivialising their cultural significance.

Since the 1970s, millions of tourists have flocked to Bali’s idyllic shores. How has this influx of foreign tourists affected Balinese Culture? We spoke with our partner, Five Pillar Foundation Co-Founder, Alan J. Yu, Ph.D., and asked him to give us his insights.

“Historically, tourism was not necessarily about accommodating the comfort of guests.” Alan says. “The Dutch originally started tourism in Bali partly as a result to combat the growing Islamic influence in Indonesia, but also because they were curious and wanted to learn about a culture that they perceived to be interesting and exotic.”

Alan credits tourism for raising awareness about the Balinese and their culture, but as he acknowledges, since mass tourism began under the Suharto government,

“the impact has been adverse in terms of the loss of the culture, as well as the environmental beauty that attracts visitors to Bali in the first place.”

The result is an interesting dichotomy between wanting to keep “Bali pristine and sacred versus making it into some sort of party zone for Australian schoolies and other people living around the world.”

Since 2002 there has been an average of five million tourists to Bali every year, and that number is increasing. The island saw an increase of 23.5% foreign visitors over 2017. This has resulted in the island’s striving to provide more of the Western comforts that visitors have come to expect.

 “As much as we would like to take people to do interesting things such as visiting sacred temples and holy springs, or introducing visitors to local residents, there is something about mass tourism that cheapens,” He says.

“The consumerist culture promoted by mass tourism has led to the growth of shopping malls and markets that cater to the ever-growing number of tourists to the island. The local community wants to provide these things at the lowest possible price. Just putting a price on everything from products to tours to accommodations cheapens everything. And, it's not just the local community that would be deprived, but visitors who come to Bali expecting to see something real, authentic and to be transformed by their experience to Bali.”

But tourism hasn’t always been about consumption, and although it may have gotten a little out of control, it doesn’t have to stay this way.

Tourism can be used instead to provide funding to preserve and conserve cultural heritage, gives back cultural pride, revitalise customs and traditions and open doors for cultural sharing and learning.

According to Alan, the aim of community development tours like the Practice Exchange and all of Real Indonesia’s travel experiences with Five Pillar Foundation is to

“provide opportunities for individuals that are located outside of the heavily touristy areas.

Not only does that provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the authentic way of life of individuals living outside of tourist zones, but it also incentivizes locals to remain in their villages and to continue to practice their culture and daily way of life.”

As a co-founder of Five Pillar Foundation, Alan develops educational experiences that emphasize intercultural dialogue, and service learning for both visitors and the local community and focus on empowerment and building leadership skills. He is a member of multiple international associations associated with leadership and development. Alan graduated with a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership & Education Sciences.