Debating culture and tourism in Bali

Travel Perspectives — By on March 25, 2009 at 5:30 pm

It’s the eternal paradox of tourism. We travel to see exotic places and cultures, allegedly unspoiled by modern influences, and yet the very act of traveling there contributes to the despoiling of the native culture or the natural landscape. In an effort to investigate tourism’s impact on one of the world’s more unique cultures, John Bowe traveled to Bali, Indonesia, and wrote about his experiences for the New York Times travel magazine.

What he found was that tourism – of course – changes a place. But in his conversations with locals, he realized that maybe, in the end, that’s alright. Cultures change, but they survive. Usually.

Here is what Nyoman Purwa Sumantra, a farmer turned businessman, had to say about the changing times in Bali:

When he was a kid, he said, he used to grind sandstone into powder and brush his teeth with a leaf. Now he uses toothbrush and toothpaste. Before it was all natural, and now it’s supposedly better for the teeth. Likewise, in his day, his parents never gave him money. Now his kids have cellphones. One’s been to Australia, another to Singapore and Java. Which way is better, I asked? Neither, he answered. It’s globalization. And it’s O.K.: ‘‘They never forget about their religion, the culture.’’

And here, a conversation with a rice farmer:

When I asked what he thought made so many travelers come to Bali, why they didn’t just go to some other warm place, he answered: ‘‘Because of Bali’s unique culture. No other country has the dancing, the religion, the people making offerings.’’ He wasn’t worried about Bali withstanding the tourists. ‘‘If the parents teach the young generation, the culture will be strong. If not, the culture will be gone.’’

Obviously, travelers must navigate a never-ending juggling act between experiencing and communicating with the world and trying not to co-opt cultures or homogenize the planet. One small but important way of doing this is to frequent local businesses when one travels so as to make sure that tourism profits remain in that economy. But this paradox of travel will always be with us. What are your thoughts and experiences with respect to this topic?

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