By Vyt Karazija
Bali’s grand plan for tourism seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It doesn’t really seem to be a plan as such – it’s more a series of somewhat reactive slogans that sound plausible until they need to actually be implemented.
For years, the driving principle seemed to be “let’s encourage more and more to come – but we won’t even think about improving the infrastructure to support the increase.” Then, when it became apparent that tourists were staying for shorter periods and spending less, it became “there are too many stingy tourists – let’s go for quality instead.” Still no mention of improving infrastructure to attract those elusive “quality” tourists, though.
Now it seems that a new target market that fulfils the desired “quality” demographic is in the crosshairs. Ida Bagus Kade Subikshu, head of Bali’s tourism agency, wants to encourage older visitors. He is quoted as enthusiastically saying, “The prospect for elderly tourism is huge.” He speaks of promoting activities, destinations and cultural experiences for the mature set, which is laudable, but says little about – you guessed it – viable infrastructure that would make it possible.
So I contemplate his suggestion while gazing around me. I see the uneven, dangerous footpaths, open pits and loose, pivoting manhole covers – and think of fragile, low-density bones just waiting to snap, crackle and pop as well as any breakfast cereal. I see the unpredictable traffic that demands astonishing agility by pedestrians just to survive a simple road crossing.
I see hotels with a multitude of levels, few lifts and bathrooms with showers over slippery, high-walled baths. I see the potential for a tropical environment exacerbating age-related illness, and the impossibility of getting fast-response trauma care through the gridlocked streets. I see the heat, humidity, dust and exhaust fumes sapping the strength of young, healthy tourists and wonder just how the elderly would cope.
And just as I am ready to dismiss Kade’s idea as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream, I read – with no small degree of shock – that he defines his “elderly” target group as those over 55 years old. I’m already more than 10 years past his cut-off point! I’m not elderly dammit! I’m… well, mature, but I still manage to live happily in Bali without breaking a hip, or needing someone to hand me my Zimmer frame when I get off my motorbike.
So I decide that “elderly” is a relative term. My 90-year-old mother is elderly, not me. Mind you, I thought she was elderly when I was 30, and I’m sure my own kids, being in the prime of their lives, regard me as a broken-down old crock.
With that epiphany, I look around again with fresh eyes. And suddenly my focus is on the teeming throngs of people, not on the obstacle course that they are negotiating. A good proportion of them are over 55 – and they are all managing splendidly. They happily go on tours all over the island; they walk the broken streets with confidence; explore rickety stairs; ride motorbikes; and generally seem to thrive on the anarchic bedlam that is Bali.
And that could well be the secret. My own contemporaries love Bali, because it provides an escape from the cloying strictures of Australia’s overregulated nanny-state. They enjoy a place where a righteous army of do-gooders doesn’t choke their spirit. They thrive in a place that, despite having many risks to life and limb, allows them to take personal responsibility for their own safety and wellbeing, instead of being treated like extraordinarily dense sheep.
So go for it, Kade. Encourage the oldies. For a start, the SKIers (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) crowd are not as impecunious as the youngsters and they are far less likely to get blind drunk and abusive. You also solve at least part of your problem with the late-night club scene, because they’re all in bed by the time the clubs open.
By all means fix the garbage problem and the dirty beaches – that’s for the benefit of the whole society here. But don’t try to lure oldies with the promise of vastly improved infrastructure. Not only can Bali not afford the broad boulevards, wide footpaths, parks and proliferating malls of places like Singapore, those free-spirited older tourists who come to Bali probably don’t really want them anyway. Some might even be making up for missing the hippy trail experience in their youth, and are making up for it now.
Bali is still a frontier in a way – a place where you can survive on your wits, enjoy the local culture, learn the rudiments of a different language, interact with a wide variety of interesting characters, dodge traffic and just go with the chaotic flow of life here.
And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple: send them to Singapore.
I’ll bet they come back.