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16 March 2020

an ode to the balinese tourism industry

i was worried about going to bali, for one reason and one reason only: who would take my photos for instagram? such a minor worry to have, but honestly the only one i had about going away on my first big solo trip, and as it turns out, one i needn't have worried about at all. why? because the tourism industry in bali has totally exploded thanks to the instagram effect, and now everyone from taxi drivers to ticket touts and waitresses in cafes are also skilled part-time photographers, snapping hundreds of pictures of you from multiple angles - without even being asking, in order to help drive their industry forward.

please explain. well, dr. hayley stanton says it better than me in her post about insta tourism

"research by media post found that 48% of instagram users rely on the images and videos that they see on the social media platform to inform their travel decision making and 35% of users use the platform to discover new places.

destinations that once were seen only by the most hard-core and motivated travellers, are now seen by the world through the instagram lens. 
people flock to places that they had never heard of before because they have seen beautiful pictures on instagram. people are now flocking to ‘instagrammable’ destinations in large numbers, resulting in significant growth in tourist numbers in some areas."

and, when it comes to bali in particular, they've even gone so far as scouting the best views and angles for you, so you don't have to. the taxi drivers and service workers i spoke to about their incredible photography skills (once they'd handed my phone back to me - laden with a new 100 photos from several angles i wasn't expecting), all explained to me it was something they have had to hone over the last few years as more and more people tourists asked for specific photos in specific locations. 

consider the great bali swing: if you didn't get a photo of you on it mid-air, did you even go on it at all? but that swing has spurred a hundred similar swings across the island, because now everyone wants to have that exhilarating experience (and photo of them risking their life). the same goes for the infamous monkey-selfies littering social media sites - without the staff there to help you set up the shot, it's just a picture of you holding a peanut out and hoping you don't get your fingers bitten off by an angry monkey.

i wasn't even going to go on the swing at the rice terraces when i went, but as soon as i saw another girl on it, having the time of her life, i wanted in (and it wasn't scary at all). and i certainly wasn't expecting photos of me on there, but my guide patu offered - nay insisted, and the photos he took were exceptional, so of course i was going to share them to instagram. this is the mindset those working in the tourism industry are in every day when they turn up to work: if we give them a good time and take good photos of them, they will tell people, and more people will want to visit, and we will have jobs longer. because that's the situation these guys in bali (and many other places, sure) are in: tourism means they can pay their bills, can afford to eat, and make sure their kids get the new shoes they need. it's simple, but true.

and this isn't even taking into account the beautifully instagrammable cafes and coffee shops everywhere you turn. now, it's not good enough to simply have good food, you have to also have a nice backdrop for people to take photos in front of, making these foodie spots not about the food, and more about the aesthetics. i mean, great for me - that's my specialty, but for those hoping to just deliver good food without a catch? a struggle, no doubt.

my private driver denis explained to me as we visited the tegenungan waterfall that less than ten years ago, this waterfall was free to visit. that only locals went there. that it was once a communal waterfall for cleaning, washing, and fresh water. but that as soon as instagram started to take off, and private drivers like him started to take their customers there for a "local experience" and that "local experience" was shared to instagram, more and more people wanted to see it. eventually, the increase of tourism impacted the environment - obviously - so they started asking for donations, and then a small entry fee (like, the equivalent of a couple of quid), and now when you visit there are four or five "insta view points" set up for visitors to get the best snaps possible to help encourage more people to come

kind of a double-edge sword, isn't it. because, where are the locals washing and cleaning now? where are their traditional water sources going, just so we can get those photos and experiences. but at the same time, the increase in tourism has meant more work for those locals - for more of a demand in drivers, in souvenir touts, for market stalls.. denis also told me there are places in bali that still have tribes and no electricity and local customs, and that reassures me. somewhat.

so, i get that the insta-effect can effect the originality out of your trip. i get that it means we run the risk of all having the same holiday. i get that it may seem like a carbon copy of someone else's trip, but what i actually found was these people wanted from me, was to see these places. i went over with few plans in mind, but actually ended up doing so much stuff thanks to recommendations from the staff at my accommodation, in restaurants i stumbled into, and even from my taxi driver from the airport. it's likely they give the same advice to everyone, but when someone is actively encouraging you to go and see parts of their country that have meaning and will also help them earn a little more money, you sort of should.

i'd love to share denis' contact details with you, for your next trip to bali. i'm working on building him a trip advisor page as he currently relied solely on word-of-mouth bookings, which isn't sustainable - especially in this current digital age where we are all seeking info online before anything else. until the page is live, you can whatsapp him on +62 813-3807-7050 as this is how he plans his work. please do get in touch, he was brilliant. all the photos of me in this post were taken either by him or by my other guide patu - you can see what i mean about them taking good photos!
what are your thoughts on insta-tourism? are you guilty of participating, or do you prefer your travel a bit more old school and offline? let me know in the comments.

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