by Ibu Kat

When I first came to Ubud in 1969 it wasn’t much geared for tourism. I remember a few home stays and the Campuan Hotel, some simple warungs (this was five years before Murni opened Ubud’s first real restaurant) and not a single souvenir shop. The village was strung out along a few narrow, dusty tracks amid endless rice fields. Electricity would not arrive for over a decade; at night, kerosene lamps lit the darkness and everyone went to bed early. I don’t know whether anyone was counting tourists in Ubud in those days, but he probably could have done it on his fingers and toes.

“Agriculture drove the economy here until the mid 1980s,” says photographer Rio Helmi, who has lived in Ubud since the early 1970s. “That’s when electricity arrived. Television soon followed, and the outside world came blasting into Bali. The island became porous, absorbing overwhelming influences from elsewhere in a big way. ”

The Nusa Dua hotel enclave was developed to accommodate growing numbers of international tourists, some of whom were wandering up as far as Ubud in the late 1980s. Not many at first—there was no beach, so it took awhile for travellers to realise that the quiet village had its own unique charm. One thing led to another. Day-trippers would stay longer if there were more guest houses. They needed to eat: a few little tourist-friendly restaurants opened. Tourists wanted to buy paintings, wood carvings and textiles and it was easier to open a small shop than to peddle wares from porch to porch. They were interested in the culture, so dance performances were arranged in the evenings.

Fast forward 2015. Just two generations have passed.

The charming agricultural village has swollen into a dirty, traffic-congested town jammed with guest houses, hotels, restaurants and shops. Almost every business in the centre of town and many on the periphery is focused entirely on the tourism industry. Almost every family compound has at least one member working in tourism as a driver, maid, cook, shop assistant, guide, spa therapist, waiter, villa manager or night watchman.

“Ubud’s economy is very prosperous compared to villages nearby and many people have become extremely wealthy,” Rio told me. “The agricultural leg of the economy has been amputated and everything now pivots around tourism. It makes the local economy very vulnerable. The pitfalls of a mono-economy are like the dangers of monoculture; one pest/problem can spread quickly and wipe out the entire crop. The Bali bomb in 2002 shut down the tourist industry for years.

“All the existing sectors are connected to tourism — construction, architecture, shops, restaurants, hotels — which means the people in those industries end up making the big decisions which have a strong influence over culture.

“Many Ubudites are heavily mortgaged. They buy cars and motorbikes on credit so they’re very exposed because they are all dependent on tourism. This unreal bubble is getting bigger and bigger. There’s no diversity, nothing else to fall back on if tourism fails. One bomb or a financial crisis could make Ubud a ghost town overnight.”

Rio went on to describe the cultural erosion he’s witnessed, especially over the past few years. It’s been insidious, as these things often are. When I moved here 15 years ago all the shops and restaurants used to shut for at least one day at Galungan. Then they started to open late in the afternoon and now they all open at noon so the staff can pray quickly and get back to work; the tourists must be fed. On Nyepi eve, it used to be mostly Balinese families gathering to watch the ogoh ogoh on the football field. Over time more and more foreigners joined the throng and this year Balinese faces in the crowd were rare. And in this hierarchical and still feudal society, young people of all castes find themselves doing the same work for the same wages. There’s some thesis material here.

But this isn’t another rant about uncontrolled tourism. I’m looking at Ubud’s young people and wondering what will become of them. I am making some broad generalisations here, but there is definitely a trend.

Higher education is rarely considered by Ubud parents, unless it’s tourism-related. There are now so many jobs in the sector that anyone who wants to work can do so, and thinking ahead is not part of the culture. Wages and tips go on a new Scoopy, a new iPhone, a new tablet because most young people live at home and don’t pay rent. That, along with easy credit and the easy money from land sales has created a strong consumer society in a culture where the work ethic is a new concept.

I know many committed, hard working young Balinese with a great work ethic. But then there are the others.

Friends who have business here tell me it’s become very difficult to find and keep staff recently. It seems that no one wants to do production work anymore. Kids are very selective these days and prefer to work in a villa, a spa or a fashionable restaurant, thank you. And when they get bored, or their friends get a job in a trendier place, they quit without notice. Those of us who grew up with a Presbyterian work ethic find this behaviour very strange. So does my diligent housekeeper Wayan Manis. “Lazy and spoiled,” she mutters darkly.

“This is a very serious problem in Ubud,” the owner of one popular restaurant told me. “No matter how well treated and well paid the staff are, they have no loyalty and leave without even a day’s notice. They are completely unskilled coming in so a lot of time and effort goes into training. But so many of them just don’t want to work. And it’s worse now than when I opened 3 years ago.

“Ubud badly needs an association of business owners to work together to improve skills and instil a work ethic. We need a system of personal references — without them there’s no way to track skills, experience and integrity. Tourism is a service industry and tourists’ expectations are high. And what happens if a there’s another bomb or some other disaster that shuts down tourism?”

A producer of chemical-free food products said, “Finding staff has been such a problem for us. Anything associated with farming is not cool amongst young people. They generally want a job with status, which in this tourist-based economy means a restaurant or hotel. Balinese youth seem to be increasingly interested only in ‘easy money’ formulas. The older generation has a stronger work ethic and is generally much more reliable.”

A factory owner with 30 years of production in Bali agrees. “I have half a dozen jobs on offer including management level positions, but no candidates. Everyone wants to ‘work in a villa’. But doing what? Cleaning toilets?”

There’s a serious lack of role models for young Indonesians. With no one to inspire them at the banjar, provincial or national level they are literally left to their own devices, to which many are addicted. I’ve often walked into a shop to find the serving staff all so focused on their phones that they don’t even look up. (And the terrifying habit of casually texting messages while driving a motorcycle often has a predictable if messy outcome.)

So here we have it. Ubud is a town that’s hooked on money with a population that increasingly regards the tourists who generate it as a cash crop. But crops fail.

Just saying.

Who will feed the one-trick pony once the circus has moved on?

Ubud Now & Then thanks Ibu Kat for permitting us to publish this article.