The Balinese have had enough of tourists getting naked at sacred sites and disrespecting local culture. Photo for illustrative purposes only. Photo: Alesia Kozik, Pexels
Leaning against the thick, curvy roots of a 700-year-old banyan tree, an influencer poses for a video. Her body was perfectly poised in front of the camera, but without an inch of clothing. The post went viral, though not exactly in the way she was expecting—as it circulated among Balinese communities, locals were shocked by her desecration of a sacred tree. To them, Russian influencer Alina Fazleeva’s nudity was an assault on the sanctity of the weeping paperbark tree, located on temple grounds and representing eternal life. When Fazleeva caught wind of the criticisms, she tried to make amends, sharing a photo of her and her husband asking for forgiveness in front of the same tree on May 4. But it was too late. Two days later, Bali officials announced that the couple would be deported for their violation of local culture.
“Although they have apologized, we will not forgive them,” Bali Governor I Wayan Koster said in response to Fazleeva’s offensive post. “It is more important for us to uphold our culture, respect the dignity of Balinese culture, rather than tolerate any action that damages Balinese culture and the image of Bali tourism in the eyes of the world.”But Fazleeva is far from the only foreigner flagged for completely disregarding the rules of Bali. Just a week before she drew ire with her Instagram post, authorities were investigating Canadian Jeffrey Craigen for posting a video of himself performing a haka dance atop Mount Batur, a dormant volcano that’s considered one of Bali’s most sacred mountains—again, completely naked. He was similarly faced with deportation, as local authorities cracked down on misbehaving tourists infringing on local culture.For years, foreigners have been caught behaving badly in Southeast Asia, from tourists posing naked in Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But this seems to be especially salient in Bali, Indonesia’s magnet for tourism that has borne the brunt of the most egregious tourist behavior. Now, as tourism returns to Bali in full swing, locals worry that the bad behavior will only escalate beyond their control.
“The local people can’t do anything because Balinese people really depend on tourism,” Megasari Noer Fatanti, a communications researcher at Indonesia’s State University of Malang, told VICE. “Balinese people are trained to welcome other people.”According to Megasari, who has studied Bali’s tourism marketing strategy, the island has for a long time been positioned as a paradise for wanderlusting travelers around the world. However, despite welcoming large swaths of foreigners to their shores—over 6 million foreign tourists in 2019, before the pandemic—the Balinese have proven to be exceptionally good at preserving their unique culture.“Bali is, in a way, a living museum. They still practice a culture and a tradition that’s ancient and they still maintain it really, really well,” Ravinjay Kuckreja, a researcher of indigenous religions in Bali, told VICE. “Even though they’re exposed to so many different kinds of people, they have this ability to somehow put up a fourth wall and maintain what is theirs, keep it within their world, and not have it be impacted by tourism.”“Instead, what they do is they use tourism, the money and interest from it, to provide and fuel their culture.”Most Balinese believe in different worlds and levels of existence, where spirits are housed in trees and volcanoes—which is why offerings are often placed next to big trees. The Balinese also don’t tend to interfere much with nature and the gods, said Kuckreja, except for ceremonies or specific purposes. And while nudity is normalized in traditional Balinese art, appearing nude—or even inappropriately dressed—in the vicinity of sacred objects remains gravely taboo.
“They see the world, that it’s not meant for human beings to exploit, but for human beings to maintain the balance,” said Kuckreja. “A lot of cases, when we see tourists coming and disrespecting the local culture, it’s because they interfere with these other worlds.”“When you have tourists overstepping these boundaries, going to the realm of the gods [or nature] disrespectfully, then it is considered an act of impurity and of imbalance.”After Fazleeva and Craigen’s naked stunts, locals scrambled to conduct cleansing rituals on the sacred tree and Mount Batur, apologizing to spirits in the area. And fearing that there will be more tourists getting naked at sacred sites, dozens of security cameras were promptly installed around Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions. But besides uninformed (or in some cases, willfully ignorant) nudity, Bali also often bears witness to reckless behavior from foreigners. In 2020, a Russian influencer filmed himself riding a motorcycle straight into the sea, promptly sparking outrage among locals who found the act dangerous and disrespectful. Last year, while Bali was governed by a mask mandate to combat COVID-19, two YouTubers played a prank by having one of them walk into a local grocery store with a fake face mask drawn across her face, making a mockery of store employees who failed to spot the face paint.
Kuckreja thinks these acts involve an element of colonialism. “It’s more of a colonial mentality that you can go and enjoy yourself in Asia, the police are just corrupt so you can do whatever you want to do,” he said.Amid a series of headlines spotlighting badly behaving tourists, some locals are frankly sick of it. Balinese entrepreneur Niluh Djelantik, who locals endearingly nicknamed “Madam Deportation,” has been vocal about calling out unacceptable tourist behaviors.
Fazleeva and Craigen were featured in a video Niluh posted on Instagram in early May, where she shamed them for their obscene acts. “TRASHY TOURIST. GO BACK TO YOUR HOME !!!!” she wrote in her caption. “You are welcome to have a good time and enjoy our island. But if you not [sic] respect us. Deportation and consequences are waiting.”For Niluh, the string of disrespectful behavior from tourists has been disappointing to witness, especially for a place that prides itself in offering outsiders a glimpse of its rich culture.“Bali deserves to have quality tourism as much as all the tourists deserve to have a good environment… while they are in Bali,” Niluh told VICE. “We are no longer receiving the quality tourists that we deserve to receive.”
“So this is the reason why I’m being so hard on them, just to let them know if you cannot do it in your own country, then don’t do it in our country. As simple as that.”
“So this is the reason why I’m being so hard on them, just to let them know if you cannot do it in your own country, then don’t do it in our country. As simple as that.”While keeping your clothes on at religious sites may sound like common sense, Kuckreja empathizes with the throngs of tourists who arrive in Bali not fully knowing its traditions and taboos.“You can’t really expect [tourists] to know everything about the Balinese culture and understand how the locals think,” said Kuckreja. “I think no matter how much you educate yourself on the local culture, there’s always limits to what you know and what you don’t know because you don’t live there.”“The best thing that tourists can do is to basically ask a local, ‘Hey, is it OK if I were to do this? Is it OK if I were to do that?’ Asking permission is really the best way to go.”Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.