Since my teenage years, Bali was a dream. I remember turning again and gain the pages of tiny photo book by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famed French photographer and founder of Magnum Agency. The book titled ‘Les Danses à Bali’ (‘Dances in Bali’) was published soon after the photographer’s visit to the Island in 1949. With his exquisite art of catching expressions, Cartier-Bresson depicted the dancing schools of the island which enact some of the powerful scenes of the Ramayana, mostly portrayed by young tiny Balinese girls.
More than 65 years later, many things have changed on the island, but the peaceful spiritual atmosphere caught by the lens of Cartier-Bresson’s Leica remains … with a difference, the hundreds of thousands of tourists.
|From Cartier-Bresson (1949)|
The first ‘incredible’ experience is the arrival at Denpasar International Airport. Walking towards the Immigration’s counters, I could see hundreds of visitors of different nationalities, Westerners, but also Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese …and a few Indians, queuing for a visa. I thought to myself, “Oh no, it may take at least 2 hours before we get out of the airport.” It was a first pleasant surprise, less than 20 minutes later, we were through. Being used to the Indian system (which has improved in recent years), I could not believe the speed with which the immigration officers were issuing visas-on-arrival. They just scan your passport, stamped and that is it.
I recalled the cumbersome Inner Line Permit still in force in many States of India’s North-East. Why can’t the Government of India introduce such a system in India when visitors want to enter Arunachal Pradesh or Nagaland? The babus of India are unfortunately unable to understand simplicity and efficiency; their system has to be complicated so that they are able to keep some ‘control’.
It is not that Bali has not faced security issues. On October 12, 2002, 202 people (including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians) were killed in a suicide bomb attack. Another attack occurred three years later, killing four foreigners.
But while ‘security’ is taken care of, the visitors are welcomed with a smile and a thunderous ‘How are you, Sir/Mam”. India has certainly a lot to learn.
A comparison with the North-East is interesting; like the Balinese, its inhabitants are fun-loving and smiling, they speak good English and are rather ‘relaxed’, further they are great hosts.
The Seven (or Eight) sisters could become the hub of domestic tourism if ‘Delhi’ could understand the potential of tourism for the economy and the integration of the North-East.
One evening, watching the Ramayana enacted by a large group of Balinese dancers and a choir ‘in trance’, I noticed how the Island has become cosmopolitan while still being anchored deeply in its Hindu tradition. Was the way the main characters of the epic perform their roles now different from the one witnessed by Cartier-Bresson in 1949? Probably not.
Sitting there, I was fascinated by the haunting chants of the choir, the battle between Good and Evil, with Sita prisoner of the evil Ravana and the Great Hanuman jumping through and interacting with the crowd, to the amusement of all. Perhaps even more interesting, I happened to be surrounded by vociferous Muslim ladies from Malaysia, fully participating in the high drama on the stage.
It was probably the magic of Hinduism to bring together such a motley crowd, vibrating in unison.
Another interesting aspect linked with the islands’ present situation is the arrival of waves of Chinese visitors, linked with the much-talked about One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of President Xi Jinping.
Indonesia would like to participate in the ambitious Dream by attracting 10 million tourists from China by 2019. The latest data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) show that 1.43 million Chinese tourists visited Bali in 2016, representing a 25 percent annual increase over the previous year. The 10 million benchmark may be difficult to achieve for the Indonesian tourist industry, moreover, a survey recently revealed that the typical Chinese tourist to Bali spends only one quarter of what is spent by their European and Australian counterparts.
While for Indonesia tourism is a source of hefty revenue, for China, it means a presence in South-East Asia.
The Agence France Press (AFP) recently spoke of China's new weapon in the economic war, i.e. tourism, explaining: “Slapping import bans on products like mangoes, coal and salmon has long been China's way of punishing countries that refuse to toe its political line. But Beijing has shown that it can also hurt others by cutting a lucrative Chinese export, tourism.”
The article quotes the example of South Korea over a US anti-missile shield and the ban on Chinese tour groups from visiting Korea. Similarly, tourism to Taiwan has also fallen sharply as relations across the strait worsened.
Countries submitting to China's demands are rewarded and those who do not ‘behave’ are punished.
Closer to us, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn earlier this month published the ‘hidden’ report on CPEC. One of the chapters speaks about the development of a ‘coastal tourism’ industry; a long belt of coastal enjoyment industry that includes yacht wharfs, cruise homeports, nightlife, city parks, public squares, theaters, golf courses and spas, hot spring hotels and water sports. The report adds: “for the development of coastal vacation products, Islamic culture, historical culture, folk culture and marine culture shall all be integrated.” Many see this as a new form of colonization; though thus is far from being the case in Bali as yet.
The point remains that India has still a lot to learn from the Island in terms of ‘hospitality’ …and cleanliness.