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Paradise Lost – part 2 June 16, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
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By Alex Sawit

June 16, 2014

 

[ To read this from the beginning, go to Part One. ]

 

 

If Boracay has only one rival outside the Philippines, it must be Bali.

My sister Jennifer recently returned from Seminyak, where she and her husband, with kids and nannies along with my brother-in-law’s side of the family, had a marvelous time. The stories they brought back clearly told me of a beach destination where tourism has been properly sorted by the Balinese community.

Originally a separately administered town, Seminyak is now a suburb of the expansive Kuta district, which includes the village of Kuta, the island’s original tourist haven where daily sunset watching on the beaches first became a beloved institution. Unlike the adrenaline pumping, circus-like sights and sounds of Kuta Village, however, the relatively subdued atmosphere in Seminyak offers travelers the right mix of intimacy and liveliness. And like the classic sunsets on Kuta Beach, the ones on Seminyak are just as bewitching.

“Everywhere along the beach, they bring out these colorful bean bags when it’s time,” Jennifer said, excitedly describing the Balinese devotion to setting the stage for visitors so they could enjoy nature’s show on the sand. “It’s a really big thing to watch the sunset every day here.”

 

My sister’s shot of Seminyak Beach.

 

Colorful bean bags…

 

…for my sister’s Bali sunset.

 

About their accommodations, she really enjoyed how the whole clan was billeted in a Balinese villa. These contemporary living spaces offer detached housing around a courtyard or pool – thatched roof cottages are the classic look but Western-style architecture is now common – with maids, cooks and other faithful staff as part of every villa’s household. All of this makes it practical for large groups to stay together while allowing individuals to seclude themselves in a real home away from home. It’s more intimate than any luxury hotel and a lot more economical, too, if there are enough friends or family sharing the rental. Also, my sister’s villa was an easy footpath walk from the beach, rather than being built along the shore.

Apart from the beach, she said, there was “…a visit to the local market…civet coffee farm…batik factory…and lots of eating out….”

At the wine shop, I mentioned my sister’s great experience of staying in a Balinese villa to one of my regular guests, who dropped in for a nightcap of red wine before heading home.

“This is something I wish they would learn to do in Boracay,” opined my Australian friend, Lisa, who it turns out also shares my disappointment with our local rival to Bali.

Lisa has been living in the Philippines for years but, like most Aussies I’ve met, she grew up a beach connoisseur, so she knows exactly what she wants out of an island getaway (incidentally, her husband is executive chef at that gorgeously manicured private island off the Quezon coast, Balesin, which Lisa assures me is quite impressive). Although our conversation that night was really about Boracay, the mention of my sister’s holiday in Bali struck a chord with her.

“Villas make so much sense,” she exclaimed. “You feel more intimacy. You feel more like you can make yourself at home, not like a hotel or resort. And they shouldn’t be built so close to the shoreline. Really, how hard is it to walk across the road to the beach? But people insist on building on the beach in Boracay and it blocks the view.”

I know what she means. Today, when you try to look at Boracay’s White Beach from across the road that runs along its 4-kilometer length, you can’t see the shore with all those buildings squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the sand, obstructing the view from one end of the beach to other. To think that just two decades ago, that same road was a scenic drive, where the vivid sight of the beachfront would welcome visitors through broad, sunshine-flooded spacings between the coconut trees. That view is now blocked forever. I told Lisa that property developers in this country are thoughtless when it comes to preserving nature’s scenery for everyone but their own guests (I also cited the example of Tagaytay, where decades of unchecked commercial building along the cliffside have permanently ruined the most panoramic lake view drive in all of the Philippines). We both sort of shook our heads.

“But Boracay’s planners,” Lisa reacted, after I mentioned that Boracay wants to sustain more than 1.5 million tourists annually, “should stop trying to compete with Bali’s tourist numbers. Do they have any idea how big an island Bali is?”

Let’s put this into perspective. Bali is an island of 5,780 square kilometers and it welcomed 3.27 million tourists in 2013. That same year, Boracay crammed 1.36 million tourists within its 10-square kilometer confines. Sooner or later, Boracay is going to burst.

“I’m not saying Bali is perfect,” I told Lisa. “Every beach that becomes a major tourist destination will develop its own problems because of commercialization. But when it comes to environmental sustainability, Bali has superior advantages over Boracay. And there is more to Bali than just the beach.”

 

My sister wasn’t able to visit this but Tanah Lot Temple, sitting on a rock
above the waves, is worth the 40 minute drive from Seminyak.

 

But I was preaching to the choir. Lisa was well-versed in the many other ways to experience Bali’s natural wonders – treks up volcanic Mt. Batur, walks through the Sacred Monkey Forest, white water rafting on Ayung River, etc. More than that, she understood that I was really talking about the local culture.

It’s impossible to visit Bali without being pleasantly interrupted by its pageantry. The religious Balinese posses an expressive performing arts culture, which means that on any given day you may have to peacefully stop on the road to give way to a colorfully dressed temple procession, or your host might just surprise you in your rented villa with a Balinese dance troupe complete with a traditional gamelan ensemble (these percussive musical instruments are related to the Filipino kulintang).

The point that I made to Lisa is that Bali is also a cultural destination. It has a vibrant, well-defined identity that succeeds in enriching visitors who are prepared to learn from it (and eat it, because Balinese cuisine is very flavorful, as my sister will attest). In other words, even without the beach, Bali still has a soul that you can experience.

And that is the reason why Boracay cannot ultimately compete with Bali. Because without its beaches and its nightlife, Boracay has nothing else to offer. That is to say, it has nothing else to offer if it stays just a party island, as planned by its retarded visionaries.

Yet there are those who fervently tell us that Boracay does have a compelling but forgotten culture – contained in the inherited memory and traditions of the island’s ancient, original people, the Ati. With help from social welfare groups, the Ati are now trying to establish an alternative vision for Boracay, one based on their cultural identity, which their advocates hope will one day lead to sustainable tourism on the island.

But can the Ati really hope to even marginally emulate the success of the Balinese?

 

[ Continue to Part Three. ]

 

 

 

 

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