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On Ubud: Expats, Starbucks and McDonald’s

On Ubud: Expats, Starbucks and McDonald’s

  • Culture
  • Life
Before Julia Roberts solved her existential crisis in Eat Pray Love, Ubud was already a bustling destination for the wellness crowd, many of whom come here to retreat from city life.

This laid-back slice of tropical paradise, like other parts of Bali, has earned a reputation as an expat haven. Many now live in Ubud, most spending on average six months of every year – bouncing out of town every so often to do a visa run.

When Starbucks and McDonalds announced plans to open up branches in Ubud, joining the ranks of newly established luxury resorts (like Mandapa, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve) and countless souvenir shops, there was sentiment amidst the “foreign-local” community that they didn’t want the influence of capitalism and the West to take root.

They wanted Ubud to retain its local charm and not exhibit the icons of corporate America which they sought to leave behind in the first place. It must be noted that the most vocal of these voices came from Ubudians who didn’t understand what these businesses could bring to the local community.

I spoke to Les Levanthal, an honorary Ubudian who was a resident teacher at Yoga Barn for many years. According to him, the local Balinese living in Ubud are looking forward to McDonalds not for the Happy Meals but because it means steady jobs.

His view, shared by other expats who frequently interact with locals, is that a McDonalds is not actually a bad thing for the community as outlets have been in Bali since 1991, and bring to the table experience in handling the local workforce.

Restaurants and hotels have to comply with regulatory requirements and locals receive more pay in these establishments than what they earn working in a villa leased to tourists by Airbnb or Roomorama.

Clearly, there is an upside to commercialism that is lost on the “Eat Pray Love crowd” (EPLs) who selfishly prioritise the retention of Ubud’s rustic charm at the expense of local welfare.

It’s important here to state there are two types of foreigners. The first category include people such as Les Levanthal who have assimilated enough with locals enough to understand their needs. The second are the EPLs who tend to have a know-it-all attitude and enjoy telling locals what to do  – especially when it comes to what they believe is good for the environment e.g. they are quick to chastise locals for using plastic straws and containers for their food.

Eco-friendliness is a good thing but underpaid locals, understandably, have different priorities.

These foreigners fall within the category of people who don’t really know what happens on the ground. They question the way the local government manages its fiscal policy, especially with regards to expenditure on infrastructure such as roads, creating tension between local officials and the “foreign-local” community.

The irony of the matter is that there would be less need for added infrastructure if not for the influx of these tourists in the first place. Right now, the monetary benefit of taxes and tourism dollars from commercial activity are being funnelled to the upper echelons in the socio-economic strata.

Objectively, there isn’t really anything new here.

The key in the analysis really comes from observing that two things. Firstly, the dichotomy between the ruling elite in Bali and the local working population. Secondly, that the need for infrastructure is created by foreigners.

The working class are the people that feel the pressure of the growing income-gap while the bourgeoisie get rich off their backs. As is the case with most developing economies, the poor suffer at the expense of capitalism.

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Adriel Ho