I like to joke that Bali is one of Australia’s states and honestly, it’s not far off.
With Bintang singlets, bad henna and the dreaded Bali braid as their chief exports, Bali’s main source of revenue naturally comes from tourism. In many ways, this comes at the detriment to the local way of life. New buildings, cafes and shops are almost exclusively designed to host foreign visitors at the expense of local participation. Traditional garments and products are now mass produced and sold without any cultural background. Tradition is all but forgotten in many areas, with local authenticity lost to an unrelenting focus on enthralling tourists looking for a good time. This is how a country loses its soul.
Luckily for Indonesia, Bali’s influence is small due its size in comparison to the rest of the country. Other global hotspots don’t fare quite so well.
Around the world two countries top the list as most reliant on tourism: Malta and Croatia. Tourism makes up 15% of their GDP—an astronomical amount.
Dubrovnik is by far Croatia’s most desirable destination attracting all sorts of anglosphere tourists to its tiny ancient walls. The main reason for this isn’t its unique position on the Adriatic or its beautifully maintained renaissance walls, it’s because Dubrovnik was the production location for Kings Landing in the blockbuster television show Game of Thrones.
This poses multiple problems. For the people of Dubrovnik, normal life is forever changed with most Croatian citizens priced out of the area by Airbnb. Those that remain are surrounded by a culture so foreign that their city is no longer their own. As for the people of Croatia - when a global pandemic hits, their economy is crippled overnight. Reykjavik, Iceland is in the same situation, seeing about 1.2 million tourists a year compared to the country’s population of 330,000. Local Icelandic people are similarly being priced out. All because they sold their soul to the cultural locust.
Again, the story is similar in the aforementioned Malta where the whole country feels like one big museum, and that 15% I mentioned earlier would be a crippling loss for any country. For context if Australia lost 15% of its own GDP, that would be the equivalent of losing funding for the military, education, healthcare and pensions combined. Now that’s a big blow.
Of course, some countries are notable on the world stage purely for their tourism; most of these are small island nations. The Bahamas, Jamaica, Fiji, the Maldives and Antigua are just some of the countries that were built on tourism. So, if these countries were developed by tourism, how can tourism be bad for them? These places all had their own identity before opening themselves up to the world, they may have been poor and less developed, but they had their own voice and sense of identity. Just look at this picture from the St. John port of Antigua. The country isn’t even that big, clocking in at about 42x smaller than Sydney by area. When a cruise port opens up in a country of this size it dominates a local traditions and cultural expression. if you want to see a country without a soul, look no further.
Is it when cultural heirlooms are sold as cheap trinkets as with Bali? Is it when the country’s newest infrastructure is designed to only house and entertain tourists as with Antigua and Barbuda? Or is it when a global pandemic forces your borders to close leading to economic ruin as with Croatia?
I call this Cultural Dissolution—when a country is reliant on foreign travel to make money at the expense of authenticity and identity. The yin and yang of authenticity and commercial tourism are ironically always at odds. Take Cambodia as another example. The reason people visit Cambodia is for cultural authenticity, spirituality, and a strong sense of identity. However, in a rush to facilitate as many tourists as possible that authenticity is put at risk. The same can be said for places like Croatia, Antigua and of course, Bali.
Tourism is the siren call of economic independence, and on paper it sure does sound good. Make money just by leaning into what makes you unique, what could go wrong? Well…
As with most things we write about, all of this invariably applies to business. From the point of view of identity, if you lose vision of who you are and what you stand for, you lose relevance and authenticity.
It’s something we often talk about as a guiding force within 50 Crates. As an example, we recently resigned a client because we were being forced to compromise our values which was leading to subpar work and a demotivated team working on the account. This was something we simply couldn’t stand for. We could have continued to take the client’s money, but at what cost?
Like the countries I’ve listed above, this is the question that matters: is money more important than identity? Is selling your soul worth wealth? Now’s the perfect time to take that step back and truly look at your business. What do you stand for? Are you proud of where you’re going?
Australia isn’t exempt from the problem of soulless tourism, nor is it safeguarded against soulless business. In fact, the two meet often in the Education sector as we’ve seen with the recent crisis in our University system. Of course, foreign students bring a lot to our ecosystem, but when a culture is too reliant on visitors— either in tourism or trade—there is a counter threat to identity and long-term cultural cohesion.
Tourism must surely be a balance where visitors experience a culture, not create it.
To finish I wanted to leave you with a couple of visuals to remind ourselves of the wonderful effects of tourism greed around the world.