There’s a nauseating article all over the Fairfax press today titled “Bali: why bother?“. In it Age journalist Carolyn Webb talks about her recent holiday to Ubud, Bali, where touts harassing her to buy things and offering her transport on their motorbikes ruined her holiday. The souvenirs were too tacky, the streets were too noisy and the sales people too desperate in their poverty, says Webb.

In essence, all the very typical things that make up a holiday in a developing country.

Webb’s article is probably the worst travel article I’ve ever read.

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But don’t let me convince you, read a few lines of her writing for yourself:

“In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops.

I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night.

Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?” I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss.

I was once strolling along one of Ubud’s main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word “taxi” is used loosely in Ubud – they’re not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)

This tout smiled and asked if I wanted “transport”. I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution.

He looked as though I’d just told him the sun was a balloon. I don’t think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.

So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?

I often wondered what these touts would think if their sister or mother got on a motorbike with a strange man.”

And on and on it goes. No surprise that it’s pissed off many people, with a debate on Twitter about the article this morning. As @msmaddiep tweeted: “Someone should tell all the prostitutes here they have really been going above and beyond.”

A woman getting on a motorbike with a stranger in Australia is not called prostitution. That’s when you get paid in exchange for sexual acts. Plus, the touts calling out “transport” want tourist’s money, not to pay the tourists for sex.

It’s very common in developing countries to travel by motorbike as an alternative to public transport or taxis. It’s also very common for young men in developing countries to make a living by shepherding tourists around on the back of their bikes.

I’ve travelled to several developing countries, although I’ve never been to Bali. Last year when I was in Vietnam, my boyfriend and I had hired a motorbike from our hotel and rode it into the middle of Hoi An. We left it there for a few hours while we wandered the beautiful streets and ate dinner.

By the time we went to leave it was dark and bucketing down with rain. The motorbike wasn’t where we left it. As we started walking the near-empty streets panicking, the only people around were touts on motorbikes offering us lifts home. We explained what had happened and that our bike must have been stolen. A group of touts told us that actually parking was banned in the city centre after certain hours and that the police would have confiscated the motorbike. One young driver said he knew where they took the bikes and that he could help us out.

My boyfriend jumped on the back of this young guy’s motorbike, while I was left waiting in a bar and with no way of contacting him. After about 15 minutes, the tout stopped at the bar to tell me that everything was OK and that my boyfriend was just filing out the police forms. Ten minutes later my boyfriend returned with the story of how the driver had helped translate with police and convince them to give the motorbike back, although the bike was supposed to be kept confiscated until morning.

So give me a break that these guys trying to make a living ruined your holiday Carolyn. Maybe our incident was some elaborate ruse with police and touts to move tourist motorbikes and then split the money paid to the driver (because my boyfriend, of course, gave him a tip for his trouble). But I see this to be unlikely.

Don’t want to be hassled by touts? Ignore them. Say no. Move on. Get on to enjoying everything else in the location that you’ve chosen for your fancy holiday. Take a moment to reflect on the rich foreigners enjoying indulgent hotels, cocktails and massages and getting waited on hand and foot by locals in a country where minimum wage is $100 per month.

Yes, travelling in developing countries isn’t easy. People are poor. Sometimes building regulations or safety regulations aren’t the standard you’ll find at home. Locals will beg for your money, because you have it and they don’t. I’ve seen foreigners — including myself, it must be said — haggle relentlessly with locals in developing countries because we want and expect things there to be “cheap”. But if you drop the lazy, racist stereotypes and instead meet people and try to learn a little about the culture, you are likely, of course, to have a most wonderful adventure.

Alternatively, our local tourism industry is suffering. Perhaps stay home and shut up?

Although it should be pointed out that The Age probably only published this because it’s clear click-bait and they knew people would get up in a huff about it. Annoyingly, they were 100% correct. Perhaps that makes me as guilty as them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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