“Eat, Pray, Leave”: Let The Backlash Begin

Monday, August 9, 2010

Seven million copies, 170 weeks and counting on the New York Times Best Seller List, and one Julia Roberts-starring movie later, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” may, surprisingly, just be entering the backlash phase that was inevitable from a book with such runaway success. We’ve seen this story before: Peter Mayles helped ensure a rate hike in summer rentals in the south of France with “A Year in Provence,” Frances Mayes did the same for Tuscany with “Under the Tuscan Sky,” and Alex Garland inspired hordes of backpackers to swarm Thailand with “The Beach” — incidentally, a book criticizing just that.

As Time notes, the biggest recipient of visitors due to the book seems to be Bali, where they note, from “January to March of 2006, 237,260 foreign tourists stopped by Bali. Since then the number has swelled steadily, and in the same three months of this year, there were 551,186 visitors to the island.” Visitors today can (for $3,000) sign up for “Eat, Pray, Love” package tours, which includes a session with Ketut Liye, the healer Gilbert herself visited while on the island, as well as stops to various locations mentioned in the book.

Of course, the locals are not happy, as Jezebel reports, and by unhappy locals we mean mostly English-speaking expats and “ponytailed men who once lived in Northern California” who now call Ubud, Bali home. They sell “Eat, Pay, Leave” T-shirts, and sneer at the mostly 40-something female travelers who’ve arrived looking for their own spiritual enlightenment and time to put in on their own soon-to-be bestsellers. And like a certain female-centric movie set in New York City did to many spots there, Jezebel “fears that once the movie opens, this whole area will turn into a far-flung Magnolia Bakery line, with women typing frantically on their blackberries and snapping photos of menus and street signs as their bored boyfriends gaze off into the middle distance.”

I can’t say this is much of a surprise. I mean, after all, isn’t this the classic lament of all travelers (see “The Beach” above). And not just travelers, you can apply this to all walks of life. Movies, books, bands, neighborhoods, food trends, web sites; name one popular example of any of these things, and you’ll find someone lamenting the fact that they were a fan before everyone else, and how it just isn’t the same.

Which is not to say that I can’t relate. Everyone has a certain amount of snobbery in them when it comes to something they love. It shows they care enough that they fear for the consequence of what popularity will bring. This is understandable, but is this really the fault of those who are causing the popularity? Is it the general population’s fault they love something, or somewhere, for the very reasons that the initial early adopters did? Should they be deprived of experiencing someplace just because they arrived five minutes after the rest of the world began to take notice?

I don’t know. I want to say yes. Too bad, you had your chance, go discover your own off-the-beaten-path paradise. Which is actually very good advice. In fact, with this site, I advocate just that, and I try to put it into practice when I travel myself. Would that cause me to not visit Ubud? No. Would I, myself, likely sneer at the “locals” and lament the influx of travelers. Yes. I’m just being honest. But the minute I began to feel that resentment creeping in, I’d high-tail it out of there with the speed I’d probably sneak out the back of the theater of a Julia Roberts flick. It’s not personal, I just have other islands to explore.

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