Bali: Simplicity is the new sophistication

Bali is a small but fascinating Indonesian island in the Pacific. It has an airport to match any international hub. Planes are taking off and landing every minute or so. Citizens of 140 countries do not need a prior-travel visa. You get a FREE visa on arrival. I counted 10 immigration counters dedicated to receiving foreigners and 6 e-gates for locals. No one spends more than 45 seconds on these. The immigration officers process through snaking queues of visitors in minutes. Within 10 minutes of leaving the plane one is at the baggage carousel collecting their luggage.

The Balinese coffee scene is obscene

The island receives, every year, a staggering 3 million foreign tourists coming through the Gusti Ngurah Rai airport. They come from China, from India, Japan, from Europe, America and from Canada. They come from all over. They ignore the travel warnings. Dengue fever, Bali Belly, dangerous driving. Even a record of a terrorist attack on a night club. They still come in their numbers. They come for the beaches, the water sports, the Elephant rides, the terraced rice plantations, the coffee, the Bali swings, the night clubs, the $5 full body massages, the temples, the paragliding, the art (you don’t know art till you have seen Balinese art), the price negotiating and haggling for everything, the culture, the $2 local cuisine dishes, the $10 fine dining, the people and of course the coffee scene – yes. Indonesia is home to the famous Luwak coffee of kopi luwak.

The local don’t seem to mind appearing unsophisticated to the foreigners. What matters to them is, each year, these tourists leave behind US$4 billion. At times it can be frustrating when they can speak little or no English. But then they also can’t speak Mandarin or Japanese, or French or German or any of the many foreign languages of all the tourists. The tourist has to adjust to the local to get by. They do love it when you try their language though. “Suksme” or “terima kasi” to say thank you and their faces beam.

What the Indonesians have done to create this vibrant little economy is to simply play to their strengths. They have the tourist attractions. All they have to do is make it as easy as possible for the foreigner to come in and enjoy. The message seems to be well understood by everyone from those in the highest offices in Jakarta starting with the president Joko Widodo himself to the elderly rice farmer in the Bali jungles. The tourist is important. Make them feel safe and help them enjoy. They have agrotourism. A simple concept where people visit to see local Balinese getting on with their day to day farming activities. A rice field is a tourist attraction! They value add by making souvenirs of their agricultural produce. The tea, the coffee, lemongrass, ginseng. All packaged in Balinese defining little novelty packs and boxes. Tourists love them.

To support this industry, the Jakarta government runs a zero tolerance to crime by locals affecting tourists. The punishment can be extreme. Likewise, the authorities don’t take lightly foreigners committing crime on their land. They will come down hard with some crimes attracting the death sentence. Come to Bali and we will do our best to protect you as you enjoy and in exchange we expect you to respect our laws strictly, seems to be the code. Drugs are a particular no-no.

There is clear evidence everywhere that proceeds of tourism are being reinvested. The narrow roads weaving through the densely populated neighbourhoods and jungles appear freshly resurfaced all the time. Of course, the magnificent Mandara Toll Road, the 12km on-the-sea bridge linking a part of Bali to the other. An architectural marvel.

The 12km long Mandara Toll Road is an architectural marvel
There’s nothing complicated about Bali. Everything is simple. When on the island, you get a sense people there care very little about what happens in Jakarta. A chap who gave me a lift once had been to other countries but not any of the other major islands that make up Indonesia like Sumatra or Java or Aceh or Sulawesi or Lombok. The government does what it needs to do and the citizens carry on with their lives. I saw a picture of the president Joko Widodo up on a wall only once in a cafe within the airport. It wasn’t a portrait. It was just a random picture of him on a wall with other famous people like his look alike Barack Obama and Frank Sinatra.

My great lesson from the island, particularly its amazing network of coffee bars has been, “focus on the simple things and do them well”.

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