Warning: this is going to be the angriest and most politically charged post I’ve ever done, so if you don’t want to listen, feel free to get fucked.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow at a guesthouse I was staying at. In addition to being a tour guide in Indonesia, he has spent some time working in Malaysia. Due to visa difficulties, he had to get there illegally, by a small boat. Over the course of several months, he worked on a palm fruit farm, doing extremely difficult manual labor. For the most part, he stayed away from major cities, for fear of being caught and arrested/deported.
The reason he did this is that wages in Malaysia are significantly higher than they are in Indonesia. The average wage in West Nusa Tenggara is less than $200 per month, while in Malaysia, he was able to earn upwards of $500 per month.
In three and a half weeks I will be beginning a working holiday visa in Australia. Wages are quite high there; it is not uncommon to earn $700 USD per week, even from relatively unskilled labor. Sure, the costs of living are quite high. But it is pretty par for the course for backpackers to leave Australia with many thousands of dollars tucked under their belt.
For the vast majority of people in the world, getting a working visa for a country like Australia would be a dream, if not an impossibility. For starters, many cannot afford to pay for international flights which cost hundreds of dollars. Even if they CAN buy a plane ticket, they are probably still screwed. Australia, for instance, requires evidence of a bank statement proving funds of several thousands of dollars. For an American like me, saving up that kind of money takes some serious budgeting and hard work. But for an average person living in a developing country, it is simply not feasible.
I’m not bringing up this issue to demonize people (such as myself) who are born into wealthy countries, or to make you feel guilty for people who are born into poor countries. None of us can control where we come from. However, I think it is important to highlight how systems of power that are in place serve to benefit the well-off and ignore those most in need of opportunities. I’m sure nations such as Australia have reasons for restricting workers from certain countries, such as “Well, they are more likely to overstay visas, etc, etc.” But at the end of the day, plain and simple, they are making themselves out of reach to many who could benefit from career opportunities there.
There has also been a disturbing trend recently (although I’m quite certain this is not a new issue) of people demonizing immigrants, specifically those who came illegally to their country. Racist and classist political discourse likes to frame them as “invaders” and “criminals.”
Well, you know what? That is one of the most dehumanizing and ignorant attitudes someone can have. It comes from a place of privilege, and a poor understanding of why people choose to immigrate to different countries. They have little ability to empathize with the plights of others, and scarcely consider what they would do in such a situation.
So yeah, first things first, being an ethical tourist starts with being an ethical human being in the first place. Understand that not all people are born with the same opportunities, and try to be empathetic to the fact that not everyone can take a pleasant one-year working holiday in a high-wage country. Not everyone can afford to travel around the world for months at a time, without worrying about how they will feed their families.
Now, what about when one is abroad? What should you or I try to do to respect the tourist industry of a foreign country?
First of all, make sure to keep things as local as possible. I recently linked to a Vice article, which talked about how much of Bali’s tourism industry dollars are going into the hands of foreign investors. Try to make sure that when you book a tour to go somewhere, you are putting money into the hands of local people. This is not always possible but is usually quite easy to do so. Waiting until you get to a country to hire a guide or book a tour is a good way to start. Many international companies offer online bookings, but you don’t always know who this money is going to. Many local economies rely on tourists eating food, booking accommodation, etc, etc.
Secondly, and this one is a bit more philosophical, make sure to engage with the culture. Eat the local food, talk to people (whenever you can get past the language barrier), and soak in the sights. There is very little any one person can do to change the economic situation of a country. What we do have control over, however, is how we treat each other as human beings. Just as you would want to welcome an immigrant into your own country, understand that the majority of people abroad are happy when you visit and want to engage with you with open arms. Obviously, use your Spidey-senses. Not every person has good intentions, but this doesn’t mean that the majority of people don’t have them.
If you have the opportunity to travel or don’t have the opportunity to travel, it is essential to recognize the situations of our fellow people. Understand that not everyone has the same opportunities, and try to engage with people different from yourself whenever possible. You will, of course, realize that most of us want similar things out of life!
For several days now, I've been stuck in Mataram, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Nusa Tenggara. Located on the island of Lombok, Mataram has a population of over 400,000. It is a local center for industry and education, and sees very few tourists compared to other areas of Lombok. I'm here awaiting my visa extension, which has taken about four days to process.
At first, the prospect of waiting around a city for nearly a week was depressing. There are relatively few things to see around Mataram, and I felt my time could be better spent checking out some beautiful beaches or stunning volcanic scenery. I must reveal, however, that these past several days have been just what I needed. Let's take a look at why this is, and what my experience in Indonesia has been like thus far. To do this, we will rewind back three weeks, to October 18, 2019.
I flew into the island of Bali, not knowing what to expect. Conventional wisdom said it would be crowded with tourists, clamoring for spots on many of the beaches. My plan was to spend just a week or two in Bali, then make my way east to some of the other islands. Between my stays in Kuta, Ubud, and Padangbai, most of my fears were confirmed.
Droves of sightseers had taken over Bali, mostly short-term holidaymakers from Asia, Australia, and Europe. Amidst the local culture and regional poverty had sprung up numerous five-star resorts, Western restaurants, and tourist offices at every corner. I've never been to Cancun, but I'd imagine Kuta attracts a very similar crowd as that Mexican city. Ubud, another highly popular Bali destination (much of that due to its inclusion in the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love) has way more tourists than local people. For a city famous for its culture, Ubud sure has a hell of a lot of shops and restaurants catering to other cultures from around the world.
A common argument I have heard is "Well, the mass tourism is a good thing, because it helps the economy." There is a well-reasoned response to that:
Although tourism makes up 80% of Bali's economy, something like 85% of that money is in the hands of non-Balinese investors. In fact, believe it or not, there is now even a Trump hotel in Bali. Vice News did a great article explaining how many local people have been hurt by rising costs due to tourism, and the massive amounts of water being consumed by resorts and hotels (leading to shortages). Yes, I'm sure many residents have profited and are doing great due to the tourism sector; however, it is not all peaches and cream.
So yeah, Bali was a bit disappointing, but that's not to say there was nothing to love. Much of the local culture and cuisine is still there, though one needs to wander away from the tourist strip in order to experience it. One thing that really struck me in a positive way was the architecture (Balinese buildings are gorgeous and have a very distinct look to them). I've also heard that certain areas in the north of the island are still relatively free of tourists; perhaps I shall have to return and check some of those places out.
After recovering from a nasty bout of Bali Belly, it was time to leave the island and head to Lombok. No sooner had I reached my destination then I took a ferry to check out some of the nearby Gili Islands, an archipelago located off the northwest coast of Lombok. It consists of Gili Trawangan (by far the most touristed and "party vibe" of the three), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Of the Gili Islands, I visited Trawangan (commonly referred to as just "Gili T") and Meno.
The Gilis were wonderful for snorkeling, and with no motorized vehicles to be found on the islands, were quite relaxing. Trawangan had far too much partying (not my cup of tea), but Meno was tranquil and quiet. Gili Meno is thus far one of the highlights of my Indonesia trip: not too many tourists, beautiful beaches and water, and a laid back local vibe. On my first day there, I sustained the worst sunburn of my life, which I have been nursing most of my time here in Mataram.
Which brings us back to Lombok's capital city. This is truly the first time in Indonesia where I'm without fellow tourists. I've spent the last few days trying regional cuisine, watching movies, working out at the nearby gym, and soaking in the atmosphere of the city. I have even made an Indonesian friend! While Mataram isn't an especially beautiful or interesting city, it feels for once that I am truly in Indonesia. Sure, meeting other tourists is an integral part of traveling to any country. However, sometimes it is nice to take a break and get to know an area the way local people do.
I feel refreshed and ready to continue my journey through Indonesia. Bring it on!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.