More than just blunders in Bali

Dana Throssell

International relations | Southeast Asia

27 August 2019

Something needs to be done about the tourists hurting Australia’s relationship with its closest neighbours, writes Dana Throssell.

If tourism is supposed to be our ‘soft power’ output to the world, why is the Australian government doing nothing to reign in Australian tourists in Bali?

We’ve known for years that Australian tourists aren’t leaving a great impression on Balinese locals—but are these frequent cases of disrespect and disgrace becoming a serious detriment to the image of Australia, and why does our government not seem to care?

Last week, it was impossible to avoid the story of an Australian man leaving his mark on Bali, particularly with headlines such as: ‘Aussie’s alleged violent, drunken rampage through Bali streets.’ The video shows an Australian man fly-kicking a local Indonesian off a moped.

We have seen Australia’s ignorance exemplified in countless cases across Asia, including two men wearing Malaysian flag budgie-smugglers at the 2012 F1 Grand Prix, causing huge offence to the majority-Muslim country and potentially breaching the Malaysian penal code.

Earlier in the year, there was another case of five Australian men running around naked and publicly urinating throughout Bali.

In the words of Erin Chew, “Anti-social behaviour has become a norm. The ignorance and stupidity of young white Australian men and their refusal to research and understand the country’s laws and customs has caused much outrage in Asia”.

Nowadays, Southeast Asian destinations like Bali and Phuket are just viewed as nothing more than a beach and buckets of alcohol—exotic Schoolies locations—chosen because they are cheaper than partying in Australia. Many people fail to respect or even recognise the rich cultures, histories, languages, and religions of these countries.

Sadly, due to frequency of travel and an undeserved sense of familiarity and entitlement, Bali has become the focal site of these Australian blunders, scandals and disgraceful attitudes.

Given the importance of Australia’s relationship with our great neighbour, Australia’s pitiful performance in Bali poses great potential to disrupt already-tenuous friendly perceptions.

Frankly, it is surprising and embarrassing that the government has done nothing to deter this.

Despite public knowledge of these stereotypes and stories (by Indonesians, Australians, and most of the world) much of the discussion about tourism’s impact on bilateral relations centres around Australia’s perceptions of Indonesia, and never vice-versa.

Many articles and books speak of Indonesia’s failure to draw in Australian tourism past the allure of Bali’s beaches, stating that bad experiences of Bali are damaging Australia’s overall attitude towards the Archipelago.

But what of Indonesia’s perceptions? There is a distinct lack of scholarship or discussion about the impact of Australia’s often abysmal actions in Bali on the Indonesian perspective.

The damage is shown on a micro-level by anecdotal blog posts, opinion pieces and the very real cringe you see from locals when you answer the question: Dari mana (Where are you from)?

The government is seeking to place greater emphasis on Australia’s soft power, with the spotlight now on initiatives such as the New Colombo Plan that aim to improve Australia’s standing and influence in the Indo-Pacific. So, why are we not aiming to repair the relationships damaged by thousands of rowdy Australian tourists each year?

The government needs to do more to educate the droves of tourists heading to Bali to avoid further tarnishing our international reputation and standing with Indonesia. There has been no sign of campaigns to help inform Australians on how to behave in Bali or even educate them on the rich value of Indonesian and Balinese culture.

The Australian Consulate-General Bali website warns of theft and motorbike accidents, but does nothing to educate tourists on the fact that Bali is a conservative Hindu island (located in a majority Muslim country) in which customs say that lovers don’t kiss in public, men going topless is rude, and excessive drinking is impolite.

There needs to be government efforts to actually prevent this behaviour through bulletins or campaigns promoting acceptable behaviour when visiting our island neighbour, before the mark we’re leaving behind becomes a stain.

On top of the urgent need for education, there needs to be a shift in attitude by the government to demonstrate that these anti-social, deplorable actions are no longer acceptable.

In the wake of the recent drunken rampage, Australian Consul-General to Bali, Anthea Griffin, simply wrote: “We remind all Australians to respect their hosts when travelling overseas”.

The Bali Consulate-General website states that “if you do have problems, the Australian Consulate-General is there to help you”. They can’t be surprised when people take them up on this offer.

Yes, the vast majority of Australian tourists travelling in Bali are probably lovely and respectful to local people, but we have to admit that these trends exist—as a country, we are well aware of our reputation in the region and have been for a long time.

With the Balinese government cracking down on other forms of disrespectful behaviours, it’s only so long before the unruly Aussies feel the brunt of this retaliation, whether it’s through policies enforcing deportation or the banning of alcohol, or Australia as a country sees long-term damage done to its ‘soft power’ goals in Indonesia.

It’s time for our government to mitigate the damage done in Bali and educate our tourists towards a future in which Australians can visit Bali without having to tiptoe around the question, Dari mana?

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One Response

  1. CPCM says:

    I have to agree, it is embarrassing to hear about the stories of drunken Australians rampaging through Bali. Also, maybe I’m nitpicking but PNG, not Indonesia, is Australia’s closest neighbour. Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I’d be interested to hear what you find the general perception is of Australians in the area of Indonesia you are living in?

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