Tourism as the New Colonialism–and what about Surfing Tourism?

“Tourism is the most colonial of colonial economies, not because of its sheer physical difficulty or the pain or humiliation intrinsic in its labor [of the colonized] but because of its physic and social impact on people and their places. Tourist workers quickly learn that one of the most essential traits of their service is to mirror onto the guests what that visitor wants from them and from their place in a way that affirms that visitor’s self-image.”

I’ll get back to this historian’s quote in a sec, but first let me say that I went surfing this morning at The Break Close to Home. The trade winds had backed off, a mountain breeze was sifting offshore, the lazy surf was pretty much empty. The air was so still that to the south over Tuban and the Bukit, a brown layer of smog coated the island. I got to thinking that ten, fifteen years ago you’d never see smog. Smog is one of the prices Bali has to pay for its Bali’s modern development, driven by tourism. But it’s a price that is considerably steeper than it has to be. What you put in your cars and scooters is leaded gasoline, and that smog you breathe contains lead. Pertamina, the national oil company, can quite easily produce unleaded gas, but the expense and political will to enforce its sale – well, the powers that be just don’t have the guts.

The quote is from a book by university professor Hal Rothman. Was it about Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand? Nope. It’s about Las Vegas and tourism in the American West (“Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West”, published 1998). But it rings true to Bali, doesn’t it?

It’s kind of ironic, because many Indonesians have a sensitive chip on their shoulders put there by this country’s history as a Dutch colony. And yet tourism is a huge driving force of the country’s economy, and a sacred cow.

Added irony, of course, is that colonialism isn’t just a Western thing. Many Indonesian from outer islands have long and quietly complained that they have been colonialized by the Javanese, who control the military and the central government.

But surely surfing tourism isn’t the Big Stomping Dollar Yen Ruble Giant. It’s a benign, kumabaya, group-hug industry, right? A big brotherhood, all for one, and one with nature? Well, keep in mind surfing was introduced by foreigners, the lucrative boat charters and resorts controlled by foreigners, exploiting a natural resource that belongs to Indonesians. (I sometimes have wondered what would have happened if any of President Soeharto’s children were surfers—they would have the Marines clearing the water at Padang, flagging the break as exclusive and private). Don’t jump on me – this isn’t really a judgment, more an observation of something that is just obviously true. And I’ll leave it at that.

Still one thing about surfing, in my informal observation, is that quite a few Indonesians, especially Balinese locals from Kuta, got an early stake in the industry, unlike say the Big Bucks hotel business, where the Balinese were shoved out of the picture.

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One Response to Tourism as the New Colonialism–and what about Surfing Tourism?

  1. Thank´s for this post! I’m a surfer and an artist that agree to this. Here are some contemporary art about colonial surfers:

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