Don’t blame the bogans in Bali, it’s the Aussie villa class which is changing life on the Island of the Gods
In Havana, the Americans were escaping prohibition and puritans. In Bali, Australians are running from their own success. With its cheap housing, labour at US$10 per day and a decadent expatriate community, is Bali becoming Australia’s Cuba of the 1950s?
There was once a time when travellers saw Bali as a place of retreat from the rigid uniformity of western life. Mexican anthropologist, Miguel Covarrubias, who travelled to Bali in the 1930s, became entranced with the quiet beauty and rich traditions of the Balinese.
Covarrubias’s classic work, The Island of Bali, described the elaborate systems of village rules that once existed in Balinese life, a culture which is struggling to survive the epicurean pace of economic development.
Of the 2.6 million travellers to Bali this year, almost one third will be Australian, and many of those won’t have a return ticket. But don’t be mistaken into thinking it’s all bogans in Kuta.
Driven by the mining boom and rising costs of living in Australia, a flood of real estate business people, finance industry refugees, FIFO workers and men on their second marriages to local women are moving in en masse.
Local gossip abounds about the Australian financier who bought a five million dollar villa, employed 14 servants and insisted they wore uniforms. At the island’s international school, the teachers have been known to remind parents not to send locally employed nannies to parent-teacher evenings.
Foreign investment in the Island of the Gods is going full steam ahead with nearly a billion US dollars earmarked for restaurants and hotels during 2011, no doubt of some benefit to an island where the per capita income is around US$1200.
Amidst the wild parties, luxury villas and country clubs, a new type of Australian is being born. He’s a good times guy with an eye for easy money and at any other time in history, he might be called a colonialist. They love the “no worries no rules” culture, well, at least the rules they don’t understand.
In refreshing contrast to Australia’s tightly regulated society, Bali seems to be free and uninhibited. You can ride your motorbike without a helmet, buy your way out of traffic infringements and build wherever you want.
You still might need the permission of the banjar (Balinese traditional council) to have a villa party, but for how long can they hold out?
Driven in part by Australian mining money, there’s a property boom taking place across the south coast of Bali with high quality villas in expat hotspots like Canggu and Seminyak starting at around US$400,000 and going up well into the multi millions.
We’ve barely unpacked our bags before a craggy faced former Australian lawyer and his young Balinese wife are offering to show us some property. He told us he was sick of working the Australian rat race and claimed to have made AUD$2 million in a year.
Yet the Bali Times is filled with stories on the adverse impact of tourism and expatriates. They recently ran a story about how the traditional Balinese rice paddies (some of them up to 1000 year old) are being torn up to make way for villas bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers, in another their Governor I Made Mangku Pastika recently gave a speech about how tourism is hurting Bali’s poorest.
Taxi drivers told us that it’s typical to spend over an hour in traffic traveling the 14km distance between Sanur and Seminyak and the roads around Kuta are gridlocked during peak hours. But how could the Government improve infrastructure if the tourism dollars were not there to support it?
In May 2012, the chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, complained that while tourism numbers were increasing, tourists were coming for less time and spending less per person.
“When they come, we have serious problems of traffic and waste. The island becomes dirty,” he told the Jakarta Globe.
While corruption remains a problem, with Indonesian officials siphoning off the bribes that people pay to build villas (because technically foreigners cannot own property in Bali), the island is suffering a new type of traveller.
As one expatriate writer told us, the problem is not the Kuta bogans, who visit Bali for their two week holiday every year and spend their tourist dollars, but the slightly well heeled who move in and buy up ancient rice paddies, fundamentally changing the culture of the island in the process.
The real tragedy of the Bali expats is that they bring with them precisely the culture they are trying to escape – endless rows of uniform luxury villas carefully constructed to generate a faux social cache that so eluded them back home.
As we sadly wait for our flight out, the gate for the Denpasar-Darwin flight unexpectedly changes. A roiling crowd of Australian holidaymakers steam down the halls at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport, Bintang singlets stretched across fat bronzed bellies and children screaming.
As a vaguely contemptuous Balinese customs official processes the queue (our first glimpse of the real Bali?), a young Aussie girl attacks her brother and he bursts into floods of tears to the outrage of his mother. ‘You little f*&%!,’ she screams, launching her enormous body through the crowd to club both children across the ears.
The crowd stares on impassively, the children howl and the customs official’s lip turns up in a sneer. It’s only midnight at the Bogan Bacchanalia, but there’s plenty more left in her yet.
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