The Bali dilemma – Australia’s favourite getaway is facing new tourist crackdowns

Loved by Aussies for generations, Bali represents tropical allure on an affordable budget. But following recent crackdowns on tourist behaviour, many had worried this would impact travel bookings. However, the figures suggest the market has never been so popular. ADAM BISHOP investigates this strange enigma.

Australian travellers’ thirst for Bintang Beer, golden beaches and adventure activities has never been so strong, as evidenced by the volume of tourists heading to destinations like Bali in their droves over the last few months.

Indonesia has been leading the pack for outbound travel over traditionally strong markets like the UK and the United States, with many pointing to people’s wallets as the primary driver for the recent trend. With high airfares in and out of Australia still plaguing the sector and the rising cost of living putting the bite on household budgets, it makes sense that many Aussies are opting to defer their longer trips to places like Europe and North America in exchange for a shorter overseas holiday that won’t break the bank. Bali has clearly enjoyed being an established market in this penny-pinching context. Already boasting a reputation for affordability, the tourism hub has found itself in the sweet spot for many Aussies travelling abroad in recent months, but for any news hounds out there, they would also be aware that Indonesia’s tourism sector has garnered some troubling headlines over the course of the year as well.

Bali has long been the getaway destination of choice for Australians

Fines, jail time and deportation have been listed as possible punishments for ‘unruly tourists’ who violate cultural norms, a new taskforce in Bali declared in July. The new tourism police unit has laid down the target of snaring at least 100 visitors a month. The island has also set up a special hotline to dob in tourists not following local conventions, and special dos and don’ts cards have been issued to incoming tourist arrivals since May. While the vast majority of the stipulations are hard to argue with, like don’t climb sacred sites or behave aggressively toward others, the push-back against tourists not wearing “proper clothes” for example has ruffled many feathers – especially those who head to Bali to enjoy the warm sun and want to wander the streets in their boardshorts or bikinis.

The recent crackdowns stem from a proposed move by the Indonesian Government in 2019 to bring in new laws to criminalise extra marital and same-sex relations, as well as strengthen blasphemy laws (to name just a few of the reforms). While wide-spread protests before the pandemic ultimately forced the hand of lawmakers in the third-largest democracy to delay making any changes, the push arrived formally again in December last year, with legislation passing to outlaw sex outside of marriage in addition to several other questionable reforms.

Bali stands apart from most areas of Indonesia because it is among a handful of regions that do not have a Muslim-majority population. Most residents on the island are Balinese Hindu, and as such, the moves by the central Indonesian Government have not necessarily been given a warm welcome by local Balinese officials, who know just how vital tourism is to their economy and way of life.

Not mincing his words at the time was Deputy Chief of Indonesia’s Tourism Industry Board, Maulana Yusran, who stated the changes were “totally counterproductive”, adding that he “deeply regretted the government have closed their eyes.”

Across the entirety of Indonesia, tourism revenue is estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, according to figures quoted by local government official in December last year, and some might surmise that draconian laws such as these might rock the boat for Bali and see a cohort of travellers opt not to jaunt to party capitals like Kuta, hailed for its relaxed atmosphere and numerous nightclubs.

However as stated above, going by the booking numbers this is clearly not the case. Despite the torrent of negative headlines and more hardline stance on visitors, one thing remains crystal clear, the crackdowns have not deterred Aussie interest in the market whatsoever.

Helping to explain this contradictory phenomenon from a psychological perspective is Dan Monheit, the founder and CEO of Hardhat, an agency that helps create behaviour change for challenger brands.

Monheit contends travellers are far less rational when it comes to risk than many people might assume, and rather than objectively weighing up travel destinations against one another, they tend to make sub-optimal choices based on factors like emotions, mental shortcuts and the context within which the decisions are being made.

Dan Monheit, CEO and Founder of Hardhat

One shortcut to labour-intensive thinking is ‘Availability Bias’, Monheit points out, a quirk whereby things that are easier to recall feel more important, true, or likely to happen.

Bali has long been embedded into Australian consciousness as an affordable, easily accessible holiday paradise, so it’s no surprise it remains more appealing in our memories than it might objectively be. Tourists tend to remember past trips that were enjoyable experiences and often downplay adverse incidents such as that nasty two-day bout of ‘Bali belly’,” Monheit explained to travelBulletin.

“Even if there is an awareness of the crackdown, if our individual experiences feel different from what we’ve heard or read about in the news, we will naturally override the thought of any possibility of future problems. This is due to a behavioural bias called ‘Temporal Discounting’, which refers to our tendency to reduce the value of things further into the future while overvaluing things in the here and now,” he added.

And perhaps there are few transactions that typify this type of thinking more than the prospect of a leisure holiday, after all, most of us book trips to places like Bali to jettison the responsibilities of everyday life for a while and get our collective gears back to neutral. This seems especially relevant in a market like Bali, which has already clocked up so many reliably enjoyable holiday memories for so many Aussies.

Monheit concluded that so long as tourists continue to prioritise immediate benefits and positive memories over potential long-term risks, Australians will continue to visit Bali by the planeload.

“When booking a cheap holiday where we are guaranteed a relatively quick flight, endless sun, warm sea, cheap cocktails, bad braids, and a sense of familiarity, we tend to get swept up with the ‘now’ rather than considering possible ambiguous, longer-term issues,” he said.

“Naturally, tourists also overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes during their holiday while underestimating the risks. ‘Optimism Bias’ leads tourists to believe that any issues or crackdowns in Bali won’t affect their specific trip and that everything will turn out fine. It’s also the reason, we take a dodgy-looking jet ski into the middle of the ocean with no training – she’ll be right, mate.”

While austerity is no doubt playing an influential role in the recent Bali obsession, it’s also worth considering the impact that past experiences and established thinking clearly play in the way Aussies plan their travel transactions.

While Bali may well be in the midst of cultural and judicial change, the fond relationship that Aussies have enjoyed with the market goes some way to explaining the lack of immediate resonance for such change, and why emerging markets with similar anti-western issues like Saudi Arabia may find it harder than most to forge new neural pathways of acceptance.

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