Tour operators in Indonesia are still trying to recover from the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now the country’s parliament has passed new laws that some fear could scare away tourists once again, because sex outside of marriage is prohibited.
The controversial laws, which critics have called a human rights “disaster”, also ban unmarried couples from living together and restrict political and religious freedoms. There were protests in Jakarta this week and the laws are expected to be challenged in court.
The new penal codes will come into force in three years and will apply to Indonesians and foreigners living in the country, as well as visitors.
It has been widely reported in nearby Australia, where some newspapers have dubbed it the “Bali bonk ban”.
Indonesia’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism from Australia, which was Indonesia’s number one source of tourism before the pandemic. Thousands of people fly to the tropical island of Bali every month to enjoy its warm weather, enjoy cheap Bintang beers and rave about late-night beach parties.
Weddings in Bali are quite common, and thousands of graduating students from Australia fly to Bali every year to celebrate the end of high school.
For many young Australians, a trip to Bali is considered a rite of passage. Others go there several times a year for quick and cheap getaways.
But as soon as the news spread that the pile of new laws were coming true, after having been mere rumors for years, doubts about future trips settled.
On Facebook pages dedicated to tourism in Indonesia, users tried to make sense of the changes and what they mean for foreign visitors.
Some said they would start traveling with their marriage certificates, while others who were not married said they would go elsewhere if the laws meant they would not be allowed to share a hotel room with their partner.
“You will be bribing your way out,” said a user from the Bali Travel Community group.
“Good way to ruin Bali’s tourism industry,” wrote another, while others agreed that they were “scare tactics” that would be impossible to apply.
Under the new law, unmarried couples caught having sex can be jailed for up to a year and those living together could be jailed for up to six months.
Critics say tourists could also be trapped.
“Let’s say an Australian tourist has a boyfriend or girlfriend who is local,” Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
“Then the local parents or the local brother or sister reported the tourist to the police. It will be a problem.
Visitors have been told not to worry too much, because police will only investigate if a family member makes a complaint, such as a parent, spouse or child of the suspected offenders.
But that is dangerous in itself, Harsono said, as it opens the door to “selective enforcement.”
“It means that it will only be deployed against certain targets,” he told ABC radio.
“It could be hotels, it could be foreign tourists… that will allow certain police officers to extort bribes or certain politicians to use, say, the blasphemy law, to jail their opponents.”
“Australians shouldn’t worry”
While much of the online chatter reflected the Australian “don’t worry mate” attitude, there is still a strong underlying concern.
Australians are well aware of how serious it can be to get into trouble with the Indonesian authorities, even for relatively minor offences.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Ministry of Justice tried to assuage concerns by suggesting that the risk was lower for tourists because anyone filing a police report would likely be an Indonesian citizen.
That means Australian [tourists] I shouldn’t be worried,” Albert Aries was quoted as saying by the Australian news website WAToday.com.
But Bali cannot afford another blow to its tourism sector. Their recovery from the pandemic is slow, and many businesses and families are still trying to recoup what they lost.
In 2019, a record 1.23 million Australian tourists visited Bali, according to the Indonesia Institute, a Perth-based non-governmental organization.
Compare that to 2021, when only 51 foreign tourists visited the island throughout the year due to the pandemic. Statistica records show.
However, Indonesian tourism is going strong: In July 2022, the Indonesian National Statistics Office recorded more than 470,000 foreign tourist arrivals in the country, the highest number since the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions in October. from last year.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the new laws “will blow up Bali’s tourism.”
‘I really depend on tourism’
A tour guide named Yoman, who has worked in Bali since 2017, told the BBC the impact of the new laws could be “very severe” across Indonesia, but especially on the holiday island.
“I am very, very worried, because I really depend on tourism,” he said.
Bali has a history of events, both natural and man-made disasters, that have affected the number of visitors to the island.
“The Gulf war, the Bali bombing, the volcanic eruptions, Mount Semeru (volcano), Mount Rinjani (volcano) and then Covid. Bali tourism is easily affected,” Yoman said.
But the Indonesian government has launched initiatives to try to lure foreigners to its idyllic shores.
Just a few weeks ago, he announced a tempting new visa option, allowing people to live on the island for up to 10 years.
And of course, it’s not just tourists from Australia who could be affected.
Canadian travel blogger Melissa Giroux, who moved to Bali for 18 months in 2017, told the BBC she was “shocked” the law actually passed, after years of talks.
“Many tourists will rather go somewhere else than risk jail time once the law is enforced,” said Giroux, who writes the blog A Broken Backpack.
“And I’m not even thinking about the single people who come to Bali to party or fall in love during their travels.”