TOURISM to Bali began in the early 1920s, when the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company added the island to its itinerary. By 1930 there were about a hundred visitors a year; a decade later the figure was 250. The ships stopped off the north coast, where passengers were ferried to shore first aboard tenders and then on the backs of Balinese men. Most visitors would traverse the island by motor car to the capital city of Denpasar, in the south, where they stayed at the luxurious Bali Hotel, opened in 1927.
Discriminating travelers, however, headed for the green hills of the interior, to visit the princedom of Ubud. There was no hotel in Ubud: travelers stayed in the bungalows that Prince Gde Agung Sukawati had built for the circle of artists he patronized. What was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time began with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as any in the world, where everyone, it seemed, was an artist of one sort or another and child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana to the exuberant, clangorous accompaniment of a gamelan.
One early visitor to Ubud, Noel Coward, had his traveling companion, Charlie Chaplin, in mind when he wrote this bit of doggerel verse:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it's entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.
Today Bali welcomes thousands of foreign visitors every day. After the political upheavals in other parts of Indonesia last year, tourism dropped off temporarily, but Australians and Japanese, who constitute about half the island's visitors, are back in throngs. They know that regardless of what's going on in Jakarta and elsewhere, Bali remains as safe as can be: even as Indonesia's political and economic future remains cloudy, the Balinese, famous throughout the archipelago for their hospitable, easygoing ways, have maintained their wonted serenity.