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Davis, California

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Controversial Bali deportation sparks discourse on gentrification and ‘foreigner privilege’

The swift deportation of an American influencer in Bali highlights a phenomenon of “digital nomads” who bypass immigration rules and perpetuate wealth inequality

Kristen Gray, an 28-year-old American woman in Bali, Indonesia, has recently come under fire after her Twitter thread encouraging other foreigners to move to the island during the pandemic went viral. In a series of now-deleted tweets, Gray describes how she went from being unemployed and financially struggling in Los Angeles to living luxuriously in one of Southeast Asia’s most well-known tourist destinations.

Since moving to Bali in 2019 with her girlfriend Saundra, Gray has made a living working as a graphic designer and travel influencer. She calls herself a “digital nomad”—an increasingly popular occupation that allows individuals to travel the world and dictate their own working conditions. For Gray, this means leveraging her online business and being able to work remotely from the comfort of her Bali treehouse, which she boasts is an inexpensive $400 in rent. 

She praises Bali for its low living costs, “queer-friendly” community and an “elevated lifestyle” affordable to lower-middle-class Americans—even crediting the island with healing her physical and emotional health. The thread ends with Gray promoting her and Saundra’s $30 ebook, “Our Bali Life is Yours,” which offers a detailed guide for those who wish to follow in their footsteps and even includes “direct links to personal visa agents” and tips for “how to get into Indonesia during COVID.”

Gray’s dreamy Bali life came to an abrupt end following backlash from Indonesians and neighboring Southeast Asians who criticized her for flaunting a lifestyle only accessible to foreigners, while locals remain vulnerable to displacement and poverty. She was also called “tone-deaf” and irresponsible for carelessly advertising Bali as “queer-friendly,” not paying Indonesian taxes, profiting from tips on how to cheat the immigration system and encouraging people to bypass travel restrictions—especially as Indonesia grapples with the most COVID-19 cases in the region. Gray’s tweets caught the Indonesian immigration office’s attention, and in less than 48 hours, she was detained and repatriated back to her home country.

Against the backdrop of Indonesia’s immense wealth inequality, barely liveable minimum wage and an influx of foreigners in Bali driving up living costs, Gray’s tweets underscore a much darker issue concerning gentrification and “foreigner privilege”—a far cry from the idyllic spiritual-healing experience Westerners romanticize.

Bali, often referred to as Indonesia’s “Isle of Gods,” boasts scenic natural landscapes and a vibrant nightlife that have long attracted wealthy tourists, foreign investors and expatriates. Its reputation as a premier tropical vacation spot is one they not only cherish but desperately depend on. Bali tourism constitutes a significant source of income for the Indonesian government, contributing roughly $3.8 billion annually to foreign exchange and accounting for 80% of the island’s economy. Because of this, the island has grown to accommodate Western tourists more and more in the past few decades, raising concern from Indonesians about a loss of Balinese culture and, more controversially, claims that foreigners have contributed to gentrification.

A major downside of tourism is that locals are relegated to low-paying service jobs and driven out of their homes to make room for restaurants, nightclubs and luxury hotels in hopes of attracting wealthy tourists. On average, Indonesians have a monthly minimum wage of Rp. 2.5 million, or $177 U.S. dollars—pale in comparison to Gray’s “affordable” $400 a month  rent. As locals struggle to afford basic necessities and continue to suffer disproportionately in the pandemic, Westerners like Gray bragging about their lavish lifestyles come across as insensitive and disrespectful.

The story gets complicated when Gray, a queer Black woman, accused her critics of being homophobic and anti-Black, sparking a heated Twitter debate between Indonesians and Black-Americans.

Gray’s assertion of a “queer-friendly” Bali outraged Indonesia’s discreet LGBTQ community. One Indonesian woman expressed frustrations at foreigners who vaunt their openly queer lifestyles when queer locals such as herself are forced to remain “in the closet”—referencing how LGBTQ acceptance is a privilege afforded exclusively to foreign nationals, while locals are ostracized and even jailed.  

Gray later claims that her deportation was unfairly motivated by her race and sexual preference, contradicting her original praise for Bali’s tolerance. Black-Americans defending Gray have argued that Indonesians wouldn’t be as quick to call out white tourists, while others insisted that their experiences with gentrification and colonization in America have rendered them incapable of perpetuating it elsewhere. 

In response, Indonesians have stressed that their concern was for broken visa regulations and a lack of cultural awareness, regardless of race and sexuality. It’s important to note that systems of discrimination in America and Indonesia are fundamentally different, with the latter targetting religious and ethnic minorities—unrelated to the  ongoing anti-Blackness in the West.

Gray, and digital nomads like her, is symptomatic of a much larger issue with loosely-regulated tourism and wealth inequality. While foreigners of all races and sexualities are capable of perpetuating gentrification in Bali, uprooting their presence alone will not solve long-term grievances. Increasing minimum wages for locals, enforcing stringent tourism regulations and protecting Balinese culture must be done in conjunction. 

Gray’s deportation has incited important conversations on race, sexuality, privilege and discrimination, as well as debates on whether foreigners living for extended periods in Indonesia should pay taxes. Hopefully, these open discussions will contribute to a higher standard of tourism practices and better living standards for Balinese peoples.

Written by: Amara Putri — aputri@ucdavis.edu 


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