Bali’s spirituality market

“Ecstatic dancing. Astral plane walking. Portal opening. Crystal healing. Mestrual blood drinking. Ayahuasca ceremonies. Every yoga style you can think of. You name it, they’ve got it.” I stare at Lars as I try to digest the implications of what he is saying. Lars (not his real name) is a Swede who quit his engineering job and moved here last year. He loves it here.

It’s not hard to see why. Bali is an equatorial paradise – we all know that. Warm weather all year round, beautiful nature, rich culture, and so on. As many tourist destinations, it has given rise to internal specialisation across areas. Kuta, in the south, is very popular with young Australians who like to party and drink hard. Ubud, in the center of the island, has become a sort of cultural hub. This is where Lars and I are staying.

Ubud has no beaches to offer. Its main product seems to be what Anglos call spirituality. It is a veritable supermarket for spirituality practices. It teems with counsellors, spiritual healers, gurus and teachers of various ways. Shaman, Demon Hunter and Forest Goddess are job titles here.

All this comes in a bundle with the cheap, high-quality consumer services common in Southeast Asia: massages, scooter rentals, raw-vegan cafés and restaurant, spas and so on. So you can go on your self-discovery journey and margaritas are cheap. That’s a strong value proposition, and it has fuelled impressive growth in the Ubud tourism economy. According to some estimates, tourism accounts for 60-80% of Bali’s GDP.

Tourism here in Ubud has a strong long-stay component. Many people, like Lars, stay here months, even years at a time. They work online, generally in tech; here, they can afford a much higher level of service that they would back home. Or they take a sabbatical, and again here you can live well on the cheap while you focus on spiritual renewal.

The Ubud spirituality scene is led by Westerners, not Balinese. Most high-profile operations (resorts, central restaurants, high profile yoga centers) run on Western capital. Most yoga teachers, counsellors, druids, seers, healers and goddesses are also Westerners.

This came as a surprise to me, because the Balinese are deeply religious. Agama Hindu Dharma, the island’s brand of Hinduism, is pervasive in everyday life. There are little shrines in every home, workplace and street corner, and they are all cared for every day, with small offerings of wildflowers and incense. There are also many famous temples, all with a dense calendar of ceremonies, dances, and so on. So, the Balinese have what the spirituality crowd claims to be seeking: a constant sense of the divine in their life.

And yet, spiritual interaction appears to be minimal. No hipsters join the locals at the temples; you do not see Caucasian features among the women bringing offerings to shrines. Conversely, it seems very few Balinese have decided to start a career as spiritual healers or river goddesses.

I don’t know why this happens. Maybe it’s about information: the spirituality scene markets itself (in English), whereas Agama Hindu Dharma does not. Maybe the Balinese are too invested in their religion to be comfortable with the rituals of modern-day spirituality. I suspect that the market for spirituality is a classic Market for Lemons: there is no way to say if Portal Opening is going to do it for you until you try. Worse, even after you have tried it it is hard to tell if you have actually experienced cosmic harmony. After all, most people have no experience of the real thing (if it exists). Under market pressure to cheapen the experience, the more serious swamis give up on the hapless Westerners, and are driven away from the market. Only lemons remain.  We will never know – there are no data.

But, whatever the reasons, Western dominance in Ubud’s staple service bring instability to the system. Balinese are relegated to humbler mansions: they clean your your room and wait at your table. Most of your money will go to the owner of your hotel and your guru of choice – both Westerners. For margaritas to stay cheap, their salaries cannot grow all that fast: if your server earns as much as you, long stays become unaffordable. So, I predict the increased inflow of income tourism in Ubud will not increase the salaries of service staff by much.

So, where will the money go? Probably into real estate values. Already now, according to our Balinese friends,  landlords demand five years of rents in advance when renting space on Ubud’s main street.  No local entrepreneur can access that much capital, they added. The only companies operating there are Western-owned.

So, the Ubud economy seems to be moving on an unhealthy trajectory. Most of the money generated by producing its staple service ends up with foreign companies, foreign gurus and local landlords. Service salaries for local workers need to stay low for the margaritas and the massages to stay cheap, securing the middle-class clientele. The Balinese are a gentle people, but if this go too far  social tensions might ensue.

All in all, a fun place to visit, and a beautiful culture. But not a place I want to live in long-term.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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