- Tiffany Wertheimer
- BBC reporter
Indonesia’s tourism industry is still trying to recover from the devastating impact of the new crown epidemic. Now that the country’s parliament has passed new laws, some fear it could turn tourists away again because sex outside of marriage will be outlawed.
The controversial law also bans unmarried couples from living together and restricts political and religious freedoms, in what critics have called a human rights “catastrophe”. The laws are expected to be challenged in court following protests in Jakarta this week.
The new penal code, which will take effect within three years, applies to Indonesians and foreigners living in the country, including tourists.
It was widely reported in neighboring Australia, with some newspapers dubbing it the “Bali sex ban”.
The Indonesian economy relies heavily on Australian tourists, and before the pandemic, Australia was Indonesia’s largest source of tourists. Thousands of people fly to the tropical island of Bali every month to enjoy the warm weather, cheap Bintang beer and all-night beach parties.
Balinese weddings are fairly common, and thousands of Australian graduates fly to Bali each year to celebrate their high school graduations.
For many young Australians, a trip to Bali is considered a rite of passage. Still others go several times a year for quick, cheap travel.
But as soon as news broke that the new law, which had been rumored for years, was about to become a reality, skepticism about the future of travel began.
On a Facebook page devoted to Indonesian tourism, users try to make sense of the changes and what they mean for foreign tourists.
Some said they would start the trip with their marriage licenses, while others who were unmarried said they would go elsewhere if the law meant they couldn’t stay in hotels with their partners.
“You have to bribe to get out,” said a user on the Bali Travel Community.
“Good way to ruin tourism in Bali,” wrote another, while others argued it was an impossible “scare tactic” to execute.
Under the new law, unmarried couples caught having sex can be jailed for up to a year, while cohabiting couples can be jailed for up to six months.
Holidaymakers could also be in trouble, critics say.
“Let’s say an Australian tourist has a boyfriend or girlfriend who is a local,” Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the ABC.
“Subsequently, parents or siblings of local people report the incident to the police. That will be a problem.”
Tourists are told not to worry too much as police will only investigate if a family member makes a complaint, such as a suspect’s parent, spouse or child.
But Harsono said that was dangerous in itself because it opened the door to “selective enforcement.”
“That means it will only be implemented against specific targets,” he told the ABC.
“It could be a hotel, it could be a foreign tourist, that some policeman can ask for a bribe, that some politician can use blasphemy laws to jail their opponents,” he said.
‘Australians should not worry’
While much of the discussion online reflects an Australian “don’t worry dude” attitude, there is a strong undercurrent of worry.
Australians are well aware of how serious it is to run afoul of Indonesian authorities, even over relatively minor crimes.
A spokesman for Indonesia’s justice ministry sought to allay concerns, suggesting that tourists were less at risk because the person who lodged the complaint with the police was likely to be Indonesian.
“This means Australia (tourists) don’t have to worry.” Australian news website WAToday.com quoted Albert Aries as saying.
But Bali’s tourism industry can’t take another hit. The country’s recovery from the outbreak has been slow, with many businesses and households still struggling to make up for losses.
A record 1.23 million Australian tourists visited Bali in 2019, according to the Indonesia Institute, a Perth-based NGO.
In contrast, data platform Statista records show that in 2021, due to the epidemic, only 51 foreign tourists visited the island throughout the year.
However, tourism in Indonesia is recovering. In July 2022, the Indonesian National Bureau of Statistics recorded the arrival of more than 470,000 foreign tourists in the country, the highest number since the relaxation of the new crown epidemic restrictions in October last year.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the new law would “screw tourism in Bali”.
‘I’m really dependent on tourism’
A tour guide named Yoman, who has been working in Bali since 2017, told the BBC that the impact of the new law could be “very serious” across Indonesia, especially in Bali.
“I’m very, very worried because I’m really dependent on tourism,” he said.
Many events in Bali’s history, including man-made and natural disasters, have affected the number of tourists to the island.
“The Gulf War, the Bali bombing, the eruption, Mount Semeru (volcano), Mount Rinchani (volcano), and then Covid-19. Tourism in Bali is very vulnerable,” Yeoman said.
But the Indonesian government has taken some steps to try and lure foreigners back to its peaceful and beautiful coast.
Just a few weeks ago, it announced an attractive new visa option that would allow people to live on the island for up to 10 years.
Of course, it’s not just tourists from Australia who are affected.
Canadian travel blogger Melissa Giroux, who moved to Bali for 18 months in 2017, told the BBC she was “shocked” that the law had passed after years of discussion.
“Once the law is implemented, many tourists would rather go elsewhere than risk jail time,” Giroud said. She is the author of the blog A Broken Backpack.
“I’m not even thinking about the singles who come to Bali to party, or the people who fall in love while traveling.”