Bali, Indonesia: developed tourist sector; developing economy

The island of Bali, Indonesia, is well-known for being the “love” section of the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love. As a tourist destination, though, it has a history that goes way back past the 2010 movie. Actually, in 1932 there was another film, The Virgins of Bali, popular for its numerous images of bare-breasted Balinese women (courteously allowed to remain so by the Dutch, who, in the spirit of colonialist cultural sensitivity, legalized nudity by uncivilized women, but not civilized women; draw your own conclusions). This film sparked a purely academic interest in visiting the island, and Bali’s tropical climate, striking natural beauty, and laid-back culture has kept the tourist industry going strong since. Even a volcanic eruption, violent political unrest, two terrorist bombings, and “Bali Belly” have been unsuccessful in discouraging visitors.

Here are a few stats:

Population (2014) 4,255, 341
Nominal Gross Regional Product (GRP) 12.84 billion USD (PPP adjusted: 49.59 billion)
Nominal GRP Per Capita 3,210 USD (PPP adjusted: 10,804 USD)
Major economic sectors Tourism (70-80%), Agriculture/Fishing (~20%)

All statistics from Wikipedia, which draws on Indonesian publications; as far as I can ascertain much of this data is not readily available in English, or I would have cited more rigorously.

As it was my first time in Indonesia–and only five days–I didn’t have a lot of time to get out of the heavily commercialized Kuta and Ubud areas, except taking an excursion to the even more commercialized Gili Islands. That said, the entire island of Bali is tourist-oriented to some extent, making the popular areas not-unhelpful in understanding the way its economy and culture operates.

While I may go more in-depth on some specifics in future posts, for now I’m going to stick with some of the highlights of my time on Bali.

The Airport
First, the airport is nice. Not just, “not a bad airport for a developing country” nice, but “the airport actually feels like you’ve arrived in a tropical resort” nice. The interior architecture, lighting, and general ambience are above standard, and the plant-covered, softly-lit exterior makes it even better from the outside. You can tell they put money into making a good first impression on the arriving tourists. I’ve been in South Korea’s Incheon a few times and Singapore’s Changi twice, two of the “best airports in the world,” and Bali’s has a vibe that easily competes, though perhaps not the endless list of amenities that the other two offer. Given that tourism is the dominant sector of the Balinese economy, and that Bali’s GRP has grown faster than the Indonesian regional average pretty consistently (6.24% in 2016, as opposed to Indonesia’s 5.0%), this makes sense as a capital investment.

The English
Second, the level of English spoken there is a little eerie. The first day, we got SIM cards at a local shop–the attendants were completely conversational. Our taxi driver, whose son had just left for a cruise ship job in America, was also quite a talker. During the conversation, he revealed that his highest education level was elementary school, and he had spent most of his career in construction. These were not exceptions–they were certainly the rule.

So let’s put that in context: I just spent three years in South Korea, one of the world’s most developed nations with a high level of interest in learning English and an effective (almost too effective) education system. There, the average person speaks a few words and is familiar with the loanwords that make up 20-30% of the South Korean language. Still, making yourself understood or finding your way around without some command of Korean is fairly difficult. In Bali, where the average education is somewhere between elementary and middle school, almost everyone we met spoke very decent English.

The disparity has its roots in basic economics. I would lay money that if you were to go to one of Indonesia’s similarly well-developed, but less-touristy regions, you would find a lot less English. Australians and Americans are two of the main nationalities travelling to Bali, and English is essentially a universal tourism language for most other countries as well. The Balinese probably learn very little English in schools, but they learn it even more effectively than the Koreans because they have frequent occasions to use it. The agricultural sector in Bali, which still employs many, though it contributes disproportionately less to GDP, probably has lower levels of English as well. But essentially anyone in a city or popular town in Bali will have English communication skills, from the hawkers to the convenience store clerks to the tour guides. Most of their jobs, and thus a large part of their economy, depends on them being able to communicate with tourists; their incentive to be good at English is high, and they respond accordingly.

Work and Savings
Third, they are absolutely still a developing economy. Like the rest of Indonesia, Bali enjoys a fairly high standard of living relative to many places, but is still plagued by governance problems, economic instability, infrastructure shortfalls, and any number of other things.

Out of the fairly small sample size of Balinese people I had conversations with, two of them (our AirBnB host and our taxi driver) had relatives working abroad on cruise ships. Our host described her husband’s work as long days, leading into long months away from home, with visits back to his family few and far between. He had spent time on European, Asian, and American cruises, but hoped to retire soon–it’s not so much of a vacation for the workers. Despite their distaste for this job, however, it remains such an attractive position monetarily that our taxi driver’s son, with his own wife and child in Bali, had just flown to America for the third time to get a cruise ship job (having done so twice before but having had his job cancelled when he arrived, which seems like a very low move on that company’s part).

Employment opportunities on Bali are certainly a bit limited, and wages fairly low. The living standard is still in line with what you would expect in a developing nation, and overall Bali, while undoubtedly a pleasant place to live due to the climate and atmosphere, is susceptible to the same money worries that much of the world deals with.

Further impeding savings on Bali, apparently, is the plethora of expensive rituals that families must regularly perform. Our AirBnB host described to us the regularly occurring religions festivals, as well as multiple celebrations held each year for occasions such as birth, death, and marriage. These are not uncommon in most countries, to be sure, but from her description, it came out that many things on Bali merit not just one celebration, but several, each one marking a different stage in, say, a baby’s life. Religious/cultural ceremonies are also common and also require fairly significant donations.

These are just a few of the things I gleaned from Bali; time allowing, I will be writing more soon.

 

Sources

Wikipedia

CIA World Factbook

OECD Structural Policy Country Notes Indonesia

Article on Bali’s agricultural sector

Asian Development Bank: Indonesia

Southeast Asia: My effort at scraping some social science out of a backpacking trip [SE Asia 1]

Introduction

I just recently wrapped up a multi-year stint teaching EFL in South Korea–an up and down experience I honestly wouldn’t trade for anything smoother. My time abroad has already been an exercise in mind-expansion, and that will hopefully continue as I visit (roughly in this order): Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

This is a famous backpacker area of course, and there’s no shortage of blogs on the region from that perspective. Rather than narrative travel or “tips,” I will focus on digging a little beyond the vacation lens and provide some insight into economic, social, and political realities as they seem to play out on the ground. Where possible, I will pursue conversations and experiences that give me a personal sense of some aspect of life in these countries, which I will then augment with data (not the plural of anecdote, but a very helpful companion).

In reality what will probably happen is: I see something that provokes a question, I research it, and a few paragraphs result. For instance, I have a particular fascination with what Tyler Cowen calls “GDP tourism.” Directly encountering the fuel that drives the country forward is an exhilarating experience. One question I ask when I’m in a new place is generally “Where is the money made here, and what does that look like?”

 

GDP tourism: South Korea

In the city of Ulsan, where I lived in Korea, the GDP was more obvious than most; you can ride your bike right past the biggest car plant in the world (Hyundai), or take a peek at the world’s biggest shipyard (also Hyundai, I believe). You could go and see the fields upon fields of cars being driven one by one onto massive ships, ready to be shipped along the veins of worldwide trade until they reach their ultimate owner, in some small town you’ve never heard of but where someone produces enough value that they can, through a spiderweb of transactions and networks, trade their skills as a plumber to Hyundai for a car that came from a country they had never been to, yet which built and shipped a car halfway around the world in the anticipation that someone like that plumber would choose to buy a Hyundai.

 

Grocery store tourism: South Korea

I also have a hobby of checking out grocery stores wherever I go. Preferably a supermarket chain, multinational or no, but traditional markets, convenience stores, or local marts are also objects of interest. You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at what the supermarket carries, and how much it costs. Korea, for example, has a love affair with Spam dating back to the Korean War. Today, if you walk through a typical store you’ll find more varieties of the canned meat than you ever wanted, and around the holidays you shouldn’t be surprised if you receive a few cans of delightful mystery meat and some cooking oil wrapped up in an attractive gift box which, in America, might contain some sort of holiday sweets.

In Korea, brand-name Spam is “fancy” because in the aftermath of the Korean War, when it was the poorest country on Earth, American soldiers had it in their rations, and due to its portability and preservation, it was easily used as a trading good and included in aid packages. Korea’s current love affair with meat (it’s in everything) comes from this period where meat was an occasional luxury, which usually arrived in the form of Spam.

You can also ponder the mysteries of why watermelons cost $20.00 USD, while bananas barely register on your receipt at $0.15-$0.25 USD per banana.

Given that I am spending 1-2 weeks in most of these countries, I will develop at best a tenuous grasp on the realities that shape them–but it should always be interesting, and hopefully factual!