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The Samuan Tiga temple in Bali. Photo: <a href="http://www.vilondo.com/press/bali-photo-gallery/bali-photos-of-religions,-temples-and-offerings/">Vilondo.com</a>
The Samuan Tiga temple in Bali. Photo: Vilondo.com

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The Bachelor's Ugly American Problem

Season 19 contained plenty of lessons on how not to be a good tourist.

The Bachelor has one goal: to find a wife. And because the bar happy hours of the regular dating scene aren't as telegenic as exotic landscapes, travel has come to be an element integral to the plot. After all, encountering unfamiliar situations gets the heart pumping and the brain meandering down fresh avenues, and simulates the feeling of falling in love.


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The last five seasons of The Bachelor have featured travel to numerous US cities as well as South Africa, Costa Rica, Anguilla, Switzerland, Belize, Panama, Puerto Rico, Thailand, St. Croix, Canada, St. Lucia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam. That’s a lot of frequent flyer miles for the crew, but the show attempts little exploration beyond the confines of whatever luxury resort agrees to be the production’s bitch for a few days. Season 17 third runner up Lesley Anne Murphy, whose group jetted off for kisses in Montana, Canada, St. Croix and Thailand, described it as a "ton of fun, but a train wreck at the same time."

That train wreck might make for entertaining television, but it sets a terrible example for future tourists to these destinations. Swaddled in luxury and entranced by tropical scenery, it’s depressingly easy to forget oneself. On trip after trip, our eligible bachelor and all the contestants tend to react to their surroundings with bewilderment with a side of culture shock—not exactly an advisable recipe for de facto ambassadors.

Swaddled in luxury and entranced by tropical scenery, it’s depressingly easy to forget oneself.

And they are. Ambassadors, I mean. The bachelor and posse play their romantic charades in front of the world; 8.91 million viewers tuned in to watch the Bali episode. For comparison’s sake, the Oscars boasted an audience of 13 million and the finale of Parks and Recreation, only 4.15 million. The drama is addictive, and the show now counts international versions in Australia, the UK, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Russia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Switzerland, and (coming soon!) New Zealand.

The Bachelor first premiered in 2002. Take a moment to think of where you were in your life that year. Finishing high school, perhaps, or maybe in college or beginning to build your career? That’s bang in the middle of The Bachelor’s key demographic, which means that this show, for many, was and is a formative piece of popular culture. And the lessons it presents about how to travel are pretty much exactly backwards.

Chris-Soules-the-Bachelor_3_2015

Bachelor Chris Soules with a contestant on last week's "The Women Tell All" episode. Photo: Getty.

This season, number 19, features bachelor Chris Soules, a simple Iowan man of the land (hence the nickname "Prince Farming") who admits that the show's big destination of Bali, Indonesia is "the most exotic place I've ever been to." He fantasizes about a future of wedding anniversaries celebrated in his hotel’s suites, where the basic "romance package" is $735 per night.

That’s only if Bali wants him back after the show’s "ugly American" antics, though. What is "ugly American," anyway? Well, Urban Dictionary defined it as "the tendency of American tourists visiting foreign countries to completely insult the culture of those countries, almost always accidentally."

Despite its image as a devil-may-care beach paradise of private pool villas and raucous partying, Bali’s traditional culture is extremely tied to religion, with Islam and Hindu the predominant practices. Tourists in Bali are expected to remove their shoes before entering a temple. (Soules did not, even during a sit-down with temple elders and a medium.) Visitors should refrain from open displays of affection, wearing revealing attire, and flagrant consumption of alcoholic beverages unless in private or within the confines of a resort, beach, or restaurant marketed to tourists.

All this is easily learned from Googling "Bali etiquette," which may have been a nice thing for The Bachelor contestants to do.

All this is easily learned from Googling "Bali etiquette," which may have been a nice thing for The Bachelor contestants to do while traveling for 20 hours from the USA to Ngurah Rai International Airport. But of course The Bachelor is not The Bachelor without these key behaviors, so Chris and the girls made merry all over the island, specifically in some very rooted neighborhoods.

It was the fun and fancy-free behavior of The Bachelor’s individual dates this season which strayed into the territory of what the US Department of State, in their travel advisories, likes to call "perceived offense." Bali is in Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim nation—the world’s largest, in fact. There are regions where Sharia law is imposed and unmarried men and women are forbidden to be alone together. Bali is on the opposite end of the spectrum in that regard, but still tourists are expected to demonstrate more conservative social behavior than they would, say, in Cabo San Lucas or St. Lucia.

There is also terrorism. Two hundred and two people were killed in the 2002 bombings of a nightclub and pub in Bali’s Kuta tourist district; the majority of the victims share the same approximate ages and motivations of The Bachelor and contestants. The tragedy left both physical and emotional scars, but Bali bounced back. It is still, however, an elephant in the room.

The Bali episode ended with the rose ceremony taking place within a temple—Samuan Tiga in Bedugu Village, "one of the most special, sacred temples in all of Bali," according to Bachelor host Chris Harrison—and yes, it was so obviously sacrilegious that, for a moment that evening, the tone of Twitter chatter turned overwhelmingly negative and confused:

In a recap, travel editor and resigned Bachelor fan Juliana Shallcross wrote, "We don't usually expect much from The Bachelor other than incredibly awkward make-out sessions and painful rejections, mixed in with some cool travel experiences, but this went too far."

It was shocking and yet somehow expected. The previous season saw Bachelor Juan Pablo travel to South Korea and Vietnam with 11 ladies, and not a one made the effort to learn to say "hello" in Vietnamese. One did, at least, eloquently praise the scenery around Hoi An: "Korea had its beauty but this is, like, nature. It’s water. It’s trees. It’s the sun. It’s beautiful."

And when The Bachelor went to Santa Fe, the city spent $50,000 of taxpayer money to lure the show, only for a few moments of screen time and a misspelled city name. Santa Fe's mayor is still pissed.

Granted, The Bachelor does offer some financial recompense to whatever nation it’s currently offending. When the show has the potential to generate some $21 million dollars worth of "free" advertising for a destination (as was the case for Fiji), and increase a hotel’s bookings by 55% (such as with the Hilton Bora Bora), seemingly small infractions of etiquette are pretty easy to overlook. Still, that doesn’t mean we should overlook them.

In a July 2014 interview with Peter Scaletter, co-executive producer on the show, Ad Age wondered where would be next for The Bachelor. The answer was a small wishlist of "untapped" destinations, specifically South America, Japan, and Indonesia. Now, having crossed off Indonesia, we’re only left to imagine the next Bachelor in Buenos Aires, perhaps with a rose ceremony inside Pope Francis’ Catedral Metropolitana?

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