The Bali that we see today is a direct result from the careful planning of the Dutch colonial government. While Bali’s economy has been heavily reliant on tourism, it also comes at a cost. Tourism has impacted the island both culturally and economically. Post-pandemic the sudden surplus of tourists overloaded Bali’s capacity. The disrespectful acts of tourists on Bali’s sacred sites has pushed local governments to rethink policies regarding access.
A quick google search of Bali shows images ranging from natural landscapes,traditional architecture, to resort advertisements. On Instagram, #Bali has over 68 million posts. The various images promise an exotic tropical vacation to tourists looking for their next destination. However, a type of image keeps recurring throughout the google search: the Balinese temple. Example, the first image depicts the Meru of a Balinese temple which is the pagoda-like structure that represents the principal shrine in an article published by Forbes titled “Top 7 reasons to visit Bali”. Furthermore, photographs of Balinese temple gate structures are also commonly found in the same google search. Why are Balinese temples– sacred monuments– used to promote tourism?
The history of tourism in Bali stems from Dutch colonialism on the island. In the early 1920s, the Dutch colonists saw an opportunity for tourism and implemented the Baliseering policy. The policy sought to preserve Bali as a living museum, preventing Bali from progressing towards industrialization which also includes the promotion of Balinese arts and culture. Prior to the implementation of Baliseering, many Western photographers working in the Dutch East Indies began documenting the island for anthropological studies and the Dutch colonial government. One example is Dr.Gregor Krause’s photobook of Bali, Bali 1912. The photobook covers Balinese architecture, landscape, and natives. Krause’s documentation segmented Balinese culture by separating Balinese architecture and life. In addition to Krause, Thilly Weissenborn, a female Dutch photographer further photographed the island. Weissenborn’s Bali photobook (1925) captured a range of vernacular and high-style Balinese architecture. The photographs captured by Weissenborn were used in many travel advertisements. For example, Inter-ocean: A Netherlands East Indian Magazine_ advertised Weissenborn’s photographs of bare-breasted Balinese women alongside an article titled The Road to Heaven and Sidelights On Balinese Architecture. The first article, The Road to Heaven highlights Balinese religious procession, whereas the second article looks into Balinese temple architecture. These photographs reached Western audiences and sparked fascination. Images of the Orient served as an exotic commodity for the West. Western photographers such as Weissenborn popularized Balinese traditional architecture that was fetishized in order to promote tourism.
Further obsession with Balinese architecture was perpetuated in the West through Colonial fairs. The sacred nature of Balinese traditional architecture was secularized by disassociating it from its religious context.The Dutch pavilion in the Paris Colonial Exposition 1931 exhibited various architectural elements from the Indonesian archipelago. However, Balinese temple architecture was favored amongst other architectural traditions. The architects of the Dutch Pavilion quoted only selective notable parts of Balinese traditional architecture to satisfy the Western idea of the exotic. For example, the Dutch pavilion presented the Meru structure. Additionally, the entrance of the pavilion was the Balinese temple gate structure.The peak event of the Dutch pavilion was traditional Balinese dance performed by natives which were usually performed during religious events.
The figment of Bali that we have is the consequence of Western fetishization of the Orient. The images we see online still depict the same Balinese architecture as the ones promoted by the Dutch colonists. The images of Bali posted on social media creates a narrative that invites more tourists to appropriate the island. Images posted by social influencers to promote their lifestyle impacts the island in a larger way. Furthermore, many foreigners end up settling on the island, impacting local life. The current media promoting Bali as an exotic paradise perpetuates the policy placed by the Dutch colonists. Hence, Bali is still occupied.