Big screen Bali box office boffo

The movie version of Eat, Pray, Love grossed US$24.7 million through its first weekend. Whether or not the film keeps up the pace, it’s expected to boost tourism in Bali, one of three destinations featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 best seller that I first encountered on a website presenting “100 books to die before you read.” Even before the movie’s release Eat, Pray, Love tourism in Bali has plumped the Indonesian resort island’s record arrival numbers.

“Ubud is definitely attracting more EPL readers, which really like turning the volume up to 11 as Ubud already attracted the kinds of people who seem to most relate to the book –women, but not all women, who relate to Gilbert because they like how she decides to turn inwards and make everything about herself, about self-awareness, about self-actualization,” travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes, who first came to Bali in 1993, says.

“It’s easy to stereotype the EPL readers as middle-aged horny women hoping to meet a man in Ubud, but that’s not fair. I have met women in Ubud who simply felt inspired by the book to leave the US for the first time and travel half-way around the world to Bali to have an adventure even as their stodgy friends and relatives at home questioned their sanity.”

As reported in Asia Times, many in Ubud are concerned that the explosion in tourism and influx of expatriates is changing the character of what was once a traditional village considered the nexus of Bali’s varied arts. “What worries me is how dependent Ubud’s economy is on tourism, which is a notoriously fragile industry,” author of the novel drawn from Balinese folklore The Painted Word Diana Darling, married into a large Ubud family, says. “There’s almost nothing else happening here. On Ubud’s main streets there are no services, shops, or eating places for local people. Aside from a few temples, the only thing at the center of Ubud for local people is the market, and there’s talk of moving that out of town so the market can be devoted entirely to souvenirs. Nobody seems to have any ideas for any other future.”

Some wonder if Bali is reaching a tipping point, when the island loses its cultural identity and becomes a tourist theme park. “People have been asking that since Dutch tourists drove around Sanur looking for topless women,” Ver Berkmoes, writing guidebooks on Bali since 2004, notes. “The fact is, once you get away from the south – and now Ubud – Bali is Bali with the changes that come with being in the 21st century. There are broad swaths of the island where if you double the number of tourists it will mean two people a day will turn up instead of one. I think it is a real concern for the future in that the island is finite in size but so far Bali overall seems adept at absorbing the masses.”

Regardless of how EPL turns out, the Bali epic may have a happy ending.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

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