'Why should we make foreigners rich?': Taxi drivers are taking on Uber and Grab in Bali, and some are turning to violence
- In Bali, ride-sharing apps like Uber and its Southeast Asian counterparts Grab and Go-Jek are tourists' first choice to get around the island.
- Taxi drivers have repeatedly threatened, attacked, and harassed ride-sharing drivers, who they feel are violating Bali's unwritten traditional laws and profiting off their communities.
- It's become increasingly clear that tourists' use of ride-sharing apps has disrupted Bali's traditions and culture in unexpected ways.
- I spoke to more than a dozen taxi drivers, ride-sharing drivers, and regular Balinese, which revealed the unusual story of what happens when centuries of culture slam into new technology.
If I get my ass kicked by a gang of taxi drivers, I thought in May, that will have been the dumbest car ride I ever took. I was walking up to a taxi stand off a popular surfing beach in south Bali with the intent of asking what might be the most sensitive question on the island.
As I stood in front of the thatched wooden hut and my translator, a Balinese engineer named Ketut Parikesit, made introductions to the dozen drivers resting in the shade, I worried one might recognize me. The night before I had been the source of their outrage.
The previous night, like a lot of tourists in the beach town of Caangu, I had been partying at Old Man's, a popular beach bar. At 2 a.m., I got tired and drunkenly wandered home. A taxi driver at the stand quoted me a price of 200,000 rupiah ($14) for the ride back. I tried to bargain with the self-righteousness of a western traveler used to being treated like a money tree. The driver refused to budge, pointing angrily to a wall-size board on the back of the hut printed with locations and prices. As I walked away, a driver called out, "I guess you'll be walking home tonight."
I walked until I was out of their line of sight, ordered a Grab - the Southeast Asian equivalent of Uber - and paid a tenth of the fare.
Visiting any developing country is a persistent exercise in identifying the line between supporting and exploiting the local economy. The line can sometimes be easy to draw: Most people would agree that it is better to eat the grilled fish at the fisherman's shack rather than the bouillabaisse at the pricier expat-owned French restaurant.
But technology has blurred the line.
When I refused the taxi driver and called the Grab, getting picked up by a Balinese man named Kadek, was I siphoning off tourism dollars or supporting a different local?
Nearly 5.7 million tourists visited Bali last year. Like everywhere else, ride-sharing apps have become the popular way to get around.
Even before arriving I was warned off using ride-sharing apps lest I incur the "taxi mafia's" wrath.
In the eyes of Bali's taxi drivers, ride-sharing companies profit off their communities and give nothing back.
Ever since ride-sharing apps launched in Bali in 2015, there has been tension. Taxi drivers view ride-sharing drivers as worse than the companies, because they know Bali's unwritten laws.
In Bali, taxi drivers' prices are twice that of Grab and Go-Jek. But, they argue, they can't lower the prices because 30% or more of their fares go back to the communities.
The taxi drivers were unwilling to give up in the face of technology's pull. "Bali is not an application. In Bali, we have traditions," one driver told me.
In 2016, violent protests broke out in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Taxi drivers clashed with ride-sharing drivers. In the years since, there have been frequent confrontations, harassment, and threats from taxi drivers.
The most brutal incident in Bali came last year when an Uber driver was beaten and his car smashed for trying to pick up a passenger in south Bali.
For a while, I felt my perception of taxi drivers as a price-gouging "taxi mafia" was correct. But Gede Hendra, the head of a taxi co-op, encouraged me to see the situation from their point of view: Why should tourists pay the same as their impoverished countrymen?
Hendra said he and his fellow drivers want to protect their community from turning into nearby Kuta, a resort town overtaken by tourism where few locals benefit.
Indonesia set forth stricter rules on ride-sharing companies earlier this year. But Bali's taxi drivers believe they don't go far enough.
Bali's taxi drivers are putting their hopes in Wayan Koster, one of the island's two candidates for governor, who has promised to address the ride-sharing issue.
Taxi drivers told me that the violence has tailed off. Ride-sharing drivers understand where they can work and where they can't, they said.
But tourists, travel bloggers, and ride-sharing drivers continue to talk about scary run-ins with taxi drivers. It's hard to believe that, as more people and drivers use the apps, they've let up.
Some drivers, like Nyoman Trirata, are tired of fighting tourists and ride-sharing drivers. He just wants to get back to working.
The more I talked to drivers on both sides, the more it became clear that the ethical choice was to support the taxi stands. But, it's difficult when they are both more expensive and less convenient. It seemed likely that it's only a matter of time before they are wiped out.
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