Is it too late for Bali?

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 2 – BALI, published April 2013


Be Movement Bali issue Alistair Speirs 3

In a world oiled by diplomacy and discretion, especially when it comes to interviews, one hardly comes across such candour as that of Alistair Speirs, Managing Director at PT. Phoenix Communications. Alistair is backed by 25 years of experience in the publishing and communications industry; he has also been for ten years the Chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Indonesia (which acts as a catalyst for the responsible development of Indonesia’s travel industry), served as World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) consultant to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, and has spent over 30 years in and around Bali. Someone who sticks by his guns, Alistair is dismayed at the rampant developments happening unchecked in Bali and as a matter of principle, will not accept any advertising from real estate developers for his publications, despite foregoing substantial revenue. Perhaps it’s his intimate knowledge of the island, his well-established foothold in the media industry in Indonesia or a certain fearlessness, but there was no holds barred when Alistair shared his view with be movement on what’s currently happening in Bali.

How do you feel about the developments that have been going on in Bali?

Alistair Speirs: Bali is beautiful to begin with and had a harmonious balance that existed for centuries. However, the real estate industry has shamelessly destroyed Bali and is still doing so today. You can drive down any street today and you will see paradise properties and exotic villas sell for a very large amount of money, on land which was just last year, a field. The Balinese have obviously taken their share of money, somehow or other, but this shouldn’t be allowed, not here in Bali.

Why were they allowed to develop unchecked?

Alistair Speirs: Because of greed and corruption. The government thinks that development is a good thing but most people haven’t got an understanding between economic welfare and real welfare. They don’t understand that a poor person living in harmony with nature and with their God, is better off than a rich person living in a concrete jungle, which has been created by these astonishingly greedy people.

Unfortunately in Bali, no area is protected and every area is open to development. The 1,2,3,4,5 green belt plans have not worked and people just build. People put in drawings to the government and say here’s what I want to build and it shows a traditional Balinese house and then they build forty concrete boxes.

Doesn’t the Government clamp down on these contradictory structures versus building plans?

Alistair Speirs: No, because of the men who have the wad of cash in their pockets. Once they’ve taken the money, they can’t go back. If they do, they would have to say that they gave the permit and they are going to have to give back the money and go to prison. So they have no choice, they’re locked into the deceit that they accepted.

How do you feel Bali has progressed?

Alistair Speirs: Everything has a progression and every step of the way you learn something which changes what you do. Now, there are 2 different sorts of people who come to Bali. People who come to Bali to add to Bali and people who come to Bali to take from Bali. It’s a 90/10 equation with the 90 being people who come to take from Bali. Most people come to Bali to proudly say that I’m developing this, I’m building retail stores and restaurants and I say to them, that’s great for you, you’re taking advantage of Bali, but what are you giving back? At least make it an equal playing field, not all about you, not just you taking from Bali. It makes me want to take away their work permits and stop their permits to do anything. These are foreigners from all parts of the world. They are foreigners who come and want to make money out of Bali. That’s just not right, especially when they don’t care, they don’t understand. In fact, 95% or even 99% of them wouldn’t know what the Subak (name of the irrigation system for paddy fields in Bali) is and that’s the basic tenet of life here. They have no idea of alignments of homes or the width of the columns and the whole way of life that they have totally ignored. They get on their SUVs and drive down to their five-star restaurants and say we love Bali.

Well, that’s bullshit.

Where do you live in Bali?

Alistair Speirs: I don’t live in Bali, I don’t own any land in Bali and I don’t buy land which has been dollar-denominated. This is a rupiah country and yet you can’t buy a piece of land here unless you buy it in dollar. It’s astonishing.

Be Movement Bali issue Alistair Speirs 2

And you’re the only publication in Bali that does not accept real estate advertising?

Alistair Speirs: It’s a matter of principle. There was a hotel that wanted to offer us advertising, but they cut the cliff into a right angle to build their hotel! They can’t do this without a permit and even if they have a permit, it doesn’t make it right. I will never go there (accept real estate advertising) and I’ve never gone there and I’ll never accept their advertising.

What made you have this passion for Bali?

Alistair Speirs: I walked the island when I came here 30 years ago, when the fastest thing moving was a lazy cow. I walked through the paddy fields with these feet and I went to watch Balinese dance back how it was.

What do you hope to give back to Bali?

Alistair Speirs: What difference can I make? I’m just giving a tiny amount of money tomorrow to these foundations (Alistair organised an event called Bali Garden Party, where the proceeds go to helping charities) just to help them keep going. There is no one listening. We’re talking right, but there’s no one listening. The decision makers and the government have made up their minds, they want money at all costs. They don’t care; they’re building a bigger airport, rather than charging people more money. I was at a tourism summit 15 years ago and I presented to the vice president and the heads of tourism and I said, you must stop thinking numbers are the game. It is the amount of money that you get. The smaller amount of people with the largest amount of money is the way to go and they have totally screwed it up in Bali. Now we have 80 hotels being developed for 2-star travellers. So you increase the number of people, most of whom don’t care about culture, who just want to go out and have beers and hamburgers, who give nothing back and they increase the total stress on the infrastructure of Bali. It’s totally wrong.

Do you think it’s too late for Bali?

Alistair Speirs: Yes, I do.


Alistair Speirs: Because if somebody isn’t listening now, now now now now NOW, it won’t change in time to save the bits that are left. See, what they do is build a road to Candi Dasa, but they put no side on the road that means, you’re now condemning the road to Candi Dasa to strip developments. That’s 35 km of shops and factories, because they haven’t got the plan to stop the strips. Therefore it will happen and it’s already happening. That’s what happened to Sunset; they didn’t plan it. They didn’t zone the areas, they said do anything at the side of the road and they messed it up by not understanding the basic principles of developments.

Do you think it’ll make a difference if more awareness is raised about the situation in Bali?

Alistair Speirs: I don’t think so. I’m part of the Bali big eco weekend, I’m part of their committee and we made this big presentation. However, the government isn’t interested. They allow Coca-Cola and Quiksilver to clean up the beaches and they don’t do it. So why would they do anything else, when they won’t even do the most basic things in front of you? Disaster is right there in front of their eyes.

I was speaking to Jim Banks (ex-pro surfer) who said that he used to feel very sad about what’s happening in Bali. He was surfing here since the 1970s and now that he’s moved to Bali recently again, everything’s changed. But he realised that this is the good old days. If he never let go of the past, he’ll never be able to enjoy Bali or see Bali in a good way. 10 years down the road, what’s happening now, will be his good old days.

Alistair Speirs: That’s a wonderful philosophy, well done Jim, it is not my philosophy. The most expensive hotel in Bali carefully cultivated its fabulous rooms and its atmosphere and sold it around the world. People would come here, enjoy Bali and spend a thousand dollars a night. Somebody then built a 3-storey concrete structure beside them, which totally destroyed the entire ambience and they have a permit which allows them to destroy Bali tourism.

So what you’re saying is the way forward to sustain tourism in Bali is to go for high-end tourism like what they did in Bhutan.

Alistair Speirs: Yes. Of course there’s still low-end tourism and people can stay in homestays like what they did before. But you do not need to build 80 concrete boxes to bring people who don’t appreciate what they’re coming to. They get onto buses and go to fast food restaurants. It’s a waste of time and they’re being sold a lie – come to beautiful Bali. When you arrive at the cultural centre of Asia and the first thing you face is a row of 30 giant billboards, advertising cigarettes, electronic goods, handphones, you think, ok, I must have arrived at the wrong place. It must be the wrong airport, this isn’t Bali. And then you come onto Sunset Road and you’re confronted by 3 stories of billboard. So you cannot actually see Bali at all, because commerce has blocked out Bali and that’s government-sanctioned. They take money for every billboard and they will not give it up.

Do you think anything can be done at all?

Alistair Speirs: No, at the moment, all that you can do is to keep chipping away and hope that at one point, somebody responsible would come into the government and say hold on a second, we can make the same amount of money and more, and have a fabulous reputation, protect our environment and protect our culture. Right now, there isn’t anybody.

What has been most rewarding for you, being in Bali?

Alistair Speirs: I’m rewarded by Bali all the time. I just published a book called ‘Dances of Bali’. No one’s written a book on Dances of Bali since 1953. You want to hear lip service on protecting cultural heritage in Bali? I heard it with my book when I took this to the hotels. We sold every copy and the hotels think that this is what they should be doing and giving to our guests. However, I said what they normally give their guests is Lifestyle; go to this restaurant, to that fashion shop and to that mall, to which they said they haven’t thought about it. For ‘Now! Bali’ (one of Alistair’s publications), I only interview people who help Bali. So if someone comes to me to say I’m a superstar chef, designer, model, they’re not for me. I’m not interested in foreigners coming to show off how sexy and successful they are in Bali at all, and they never get into our magazine.

Who are your readers?

Alistair Speirs: Tourists, we’re in all the hotels and I want the tourists to read about the real Bali and understand the culture, history and nature and that’s what we write about and that’s what we do.

Be Movement Bali issue Alistair Speirs






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