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Demystifying Paradise Isle: why Western expats like Kristen Gray need to stop romanticising Bali

Tourists from the West present Bali as a utopia. For the people who were there first, it's a different story.

22 Jan 2021

This week, a Twitter thread penned by an American graphic designer named Kristen Gray went viral. No wonder; successive tweets detailed the seemingly charmed life she and her girlfriend, Saundra Alexander, were now enjoying after moving to the Indonesian island of Bali in 2020. The move, wrote Gray, had been a “game changer”. 

She went on to flaunt their new low-cost-yet-luxurious-life of treehouses and yoga retreats, as well as her increased entrepreneurial success as a graphic designer, adding that Bali was “queer friendly” with a thriving “Black in Bali community”. Gray’s thread finished with an invitation and an advert, encouraging others to head to Bali in the midst of a pandemic, before promoting her $30 e-book titled, Our Bali Life is Yours

However, the dream life that Gray and her girlfriend had created was discovered to be built on a stark reality of immigration violations, including overstaying her visa, not paying tax and, according to Balinese authorities, “carrying out dangerous activities”. Consequently, Gray was deported back to the US on Thursday night and reportedly faces a six-month ban on returning to the island. 

Gray’s Eat, Pray, Love moment revealed a systemic problem that has been long occurring as a result of Bali’s tourism industry. The global marketisation of Bali as a haven of paradise has attracted thousands of Western expats that range from surfers, yogis, partygoers, gap yahs, retired sunseekers and, more recently, so-called ‘digital nomads’ to claim the island as their home. Influencers too have flocked to Bali, with several setting up permanent shops there, encouraged by the island’s ministry of tourism. Their continuous influx has resulted in the rapid gentrification of Bali into a space of curated enjoyment for Instagram feeds. For those outside the island, it’s presented as an exoticised utopia, where Westerners can enjoy low-budget luxury, freedom from bigotry and an ideal life. The reality, of both Bali and the experience of Indonesians who live there, is vastly different. 

There exists an unspoken hierarchy of citizenship that has perpetuated the exoticisation of Bali. The dependency of the Indonesian economy on tourists has automatically placed foreigners, typically from countries of the Global North, in a position of superiority. Bali’s status as a ‘hotspot tourist destination’ imposes a responsibility for locals to uphold, serving foreigners in order to fulfill the neo-colonial image of ease amid the exotic. This is central to the concept of the “Paradise Isle”. It is important to recognise the implications that are brought up by Western travellers and to question the fantasies of paradise that are promoted – paradise for whom? The need for economic survival via tourism has placed the Balinese in a never-ending cycle of precarity and displacement to serve Western visitors.

For Westerners, the Paradise Isle is a land of economic opportunity. The current exchange rate of $1 equivalent to Indonesian rupiah (Rp.)14.092 has placed foreigners within the ‘First World’ in a position of economic superiority. As Gray boasted, one can live a higher quality of life with minimal costs – as Gray’s switch from a $1300 studio apartment in Los Angeles to a $400 treehouse exemplifies. 

“Gray herself professed that her decision not to pay tax to Indonesia was “legal” because she was being paid in dollars, not rupiah”

Bali has also become a key site for dropshipping – a scheme which sees opportunistic ‘entrepreneurs’ reselling cheap products like a hands-free running leash for dogs at a markup, sourced from small businesses and retailers in China and the Philippines. The ‘dropshipper’ becomes the intermediary between these two worlds, relying on a strategy of targeted marketing with the likes of Facebook Ads to appeal to Western consumers who often either have no idea about the actual origins of the product or simply don’t mind paying more for the ‘convenience’ of not having to source it themselves. The lack of transparency within the world of dropshipping has become a way for Bali-based Westerners to hoard vast amounts of wealth without having to pay tax. Gray herself professed that her decision not to pay tax to Indonesia was “legal” because she was being paid in dollars, not rupiah. 

Displacement is also becoming a significant issue amid growing construction of hotels, luxury estates and villas – collectively owned by Indonesian conglomerates and foreigners alike – which has led to the erasure of rice-fields that are central to the Balinese cultural landscape, as well as their food provision. Villages that were housed within these paddy fields have been forcibly moved, due to the increase in land prices and noise pollution. The spike in land prices has pushed the Balinese natives, specifically farmers, to a position of economic inferiority as they face a 400% increase in the cost of land. But for foreign investors and Western expats, this has proved an opportunity for ownership, buoyed by the favour of a higher exchange rate. 

Bali is an embodiment of the privileges of capital, citizenship and land that has lingered in the history of Indonesia. On the other side of the archipelago, the Papuans – an indigenous minority group of ethic Melanesian origin – bear the brunt of anti-blackness and are still fighting for their rights to their native land. Meanwhile, Afghan, Palestinian and Syrian refugees who have fled to Indonesia are left stranded in refugee camps or on the streets. With that in mind, it is imperative to recognise that marginalisation is contextual. Gray’s claims of safety for Black people in reference to her “Black in Bali” community diminishes the privileges of citizenship and wealth that she holds within her bubble of Western expats. 

Bali is hardly “queer friendly” either. Same-sex marriage is not permitted in Indonesia and the  state is notorious for its anti-LGBTQI+ stance. Last year, lawmakers pushed through the proposal of a legal bill that forces LGBTQI+ communities into rehabilitation and the arrests of LGBTQI+ folks. Gray’s claims that Indonesia is a ‘safe haven’ for LGBTQI+ people illustrates the ignorance held by Western expats and erases the harsh realities faced by queer Indonesians deemed to be second-class citizens. In fact, state-enacted homophobia forms the grounds of Gray’s deportation; she faces accusations of spreading information that could “unsettle” the public for advertising Bali as a “queer friendly” sanctuary. What’s more, Indonesia’s LGBTQI+ community now fear a fallout from Gray’s notoriety that endangers the ‘discretion’ that they rely on as protection.

What started as a somewhat boastful Twitter thread, designed to sell a cobbled together e-book, has evolved into an overdue discussion of belonging and privilege in one of Indonesia’s crown jewels. At times, many individuals in the West will be complicit in the mechanics of tourism; travel is a wonderful way to explore the world. But they must remember the privileges that they hold in the places they embark upon. And remember that behind every promise of paradise in the eyes of the West, there are people who were there first.