THE SURPRISING HISTORY OF BALI'S SWIMWEAR MANUFACTURING HUB
Updated: Feb 4
Bali has long been a popular travel destination and tourists often leave with souvenirs from Indonesia, including clothing items such as sarongs and the traditional kathak outfit. But did you know that Bali has also become one of the world’s biggest swimwear manufacturing hubs? And not only that, but the island also happens to produce some of the most fashionable beachwear around, too! Let’s look at how Bali became one of the world’s largest swimwear manufacturers...
Colonialism in Indonesia
Bali’s colonial history is not unlike that of other Southeast Asian nations. It was first colonized by Portugal in 1511, who occupied it for almost two centuries before losing it to Holland. In 1945, Indonesia became an independent nation and as part of a United Nations-brokered peace treaty, Jakarta reabsorbed Bali into its borders. The island’s unique culture, which had survived Dutch occupation largely intact, flourished once again. The island remains one of Indonesia’s most popular tourist destinations today.
Dutch Colonization (until 1942)
The first Westerners to reach Bali were Dutch explorers. In 1670, Dutch cartographers depicted Bola on their maps, referring to narrow-waisted trousers worn by locals. The island was ruled by a series of strong rajas until 1942, when Japan invaded and occupied Indonesia for three years. During that time, Japanese soldiers forced Balinese men into labor camps where they had to wear loincloths made from bark cloth.
During World War II, most Balinese women wore sarongs called kebaya or kain Panjang; after 1945, those who could afford it began wearing imported American swimsuits with sarongs over them. After Indonesian independence in 1949, traditional dress became associated with Communism and leftists in general.
The central government mandated local authorities to ban public demonstrations of these customs. When Bali’s economy took off in 1965 thanks to tourism, Western tourists wanted only two things: comfort and novelty. Loincloths did not provide either; bikinis did. Bathing suits fit right in with everything else Western visitors associated with being modern: cars, televisions, telephones and refrigerators.
In 1945, Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch rule. In a country rich with natural resources, including precious hardwoods and valuable oil, there was great demand for local manufacturing businesses. With a large pool of low-cost labor to draw upon and major demand in foreign markets, Bali became an ideal location for swimsuit manufacturing. It wasn’t long before several major players established operations on the island.
Special Economic Zones (until 1999)
In a bid to make their exports cheaper, in 1984 Indonesia created two special economic zones for textile and clothing manufacturing: one in Java, another in Bali. To encourage foreign investors, who would shoulder all the infrastructure costs, import duties were slashed by as much as 50%. Investors could also pay no local or national taxes for five years; after that they’d have to start paying 5% to 10% tax. They could run their operations entirely without an Indonesian partner if they wished.
Garments Industry Boom (since 1999)
The economic growth of Indonesia from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2004 to 2006 sparked a boom in manufacturing in Bali, creating as many as 25,000 new jobs on the island. This was followed by two significant downturns beginning in 2007 that left some industry experts worried that Bali’s textile industry was permanently damaged. Although production slowed throughout Indonesia during these periods, it never fully shut down.
Many local companies survived by shifting their focus away from mass-produced items like T-shirts and swimsuits toward more customized products such as wedding dresses or uniforms for hotels. As demand picked up once again after 2010, so did business on Bali’s shores. Today, clothing is still one of the most important industries in Bali, accounting for roughly 12 percent of all exports produced there.
More than 80 percent of Indonesia’s textiles are exported, making it among Asia’s top exporters of garments. However, despite its global popularity as a destination for clothing production, Bali accounts for only 1 percent of total garment exports coming out of Indonesia. While it may not be Indonesia’s biggest player in terms of apparel production, Bali has carved out a niche market as a center for high-quality swimsuit design and manufacture.
The rise of tourism over recent decades has helped boost local businesses on the island, with hotels looking to offer attractive clothes to wear while lounging around at poolside. In turn, manufacturers have found themselves increasingly catering to tourists rather than locals.
A Personal Connection
It’s no secret that Indonesia is one of several swimsuit and bikini manufacturing hubs, exporting hundreds of millions in products to major retailers around the world. But for me, what really piqued my interest was a random walk down Kuta beach in 2014.
I had just finished a lengthy layover at Bali airport and was eager to get some fresh air before my next flight. With nowhere else to go, I wandered along rows of stalls selling everything from sarongs to surfboards. After about 10 minutes walking north along Jalan Legian (the main road on Kuta Beach), I reached an area where suddenly there were dozens upon dozens of shops selling bathing suits and bikinis—and it wasn’t even high season!
Why Bali in Asia?
One hundred years ago, Bali was one of several island kingdoms in Southeast Asia and, like many others in that part of the world, it was a place rich with tropical greenery and teeming with wildlife. But during World War II, under Japanese occupation during a conflict that came to be known as The Pacific War, everything changed.
Japan’s military forced locals to build airstrips, bridges, and roads through dense jungle terrain—including some of Bali’s most pristine natural areas—and when they were done, they destroyed what they had built. After Japan surrendered in 1945, Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule; however, fighting continued for three more years before Dutch forces finally left Indonesia in 1949.
As you can imagine, much of Bali’s infrastructure was devastated by war. However, after decades of rebuilding efforts, there are now thriving factories that produce swimsuits and other clothing items for major retailers all over the world.
Today, Indonesia is an economic powerhouse thanks to its growing manufacturing sector (the fourth largest in Asia), which employs nearly 12 million people across various industries including textiles and apparel.