Indonesia’s new sex laws and what they could mean for tourism

 Wednesday, December 7, 2022 


Tourism 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 turn tourists away once again – because having sex out of wedlock is set to be outlawed.

The controversial laws, which critics have labelled a “disaster” for human rights, 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 criminal code is set to take effect in three years and 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” – although observers say the new criminal code is very unlikely to affect tourists in part because for prosecutions to start a complaint must be filed by the children, parents or spouse of the accused couple.

Indonesia’s economy heavily relies on tourism from Australia, which was Indonesia’s number one tourist source before the pandemic.

Thousands of people fly to the tropical island of Bali every month to bask in its warm weather, indulge in cheap Bintang beers and rave at all-night beach parties.

Bali weddings are quite common, and thousands of Australia’s graduate students fly to Bali every year to celebrate finishing high school.

For many young Australians, a trip to Bali is seen as a rite of passage. Others go there a few times a year for quick, cheap getaways.

Indonesia passes law banning sex outside marriage

But as soon as news trickled through that the raft of new laws were becoming reality, after being mere rumours for years, some doubt over future trips began to set in.

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 travelling 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.

Australians shouldn’t be worried

The new criminal code means that – if a complaint is first brought by the children, parents or spouse of the accused couple – unmarried couples having sex can be jailed for up to a year and those who live together could be jailed for up to six months.

A spokesperson for Indonesia’s justice ministry tried to calm concerns by suggesting that the risk was less for tourists because anyone making the police complaint would most likely be an Indonesian national.

But critics say holidaymakers could become ensnared.

While much of the chatter online reflected the Aussie attitude of “no worries, mate”, there is still a strong undercurrent of concern.

Australians are acutely aware of how serious getting in trouble with the Indonesian authorities can be – even for relatively minor offences.

But Bali cannot afford to have another blow to its tourism sector. Its recovery from the pandemic is slow, and many businesses and families are still trying to get back what they lost.

In 2019, a record 1.23 million Australian tourists visited Bali, according the Indonesia Institute, a Perth-based non-government organisation.

Compare that to 2021 – when just 51 foreign tourists visited the island for the entire year because of the pandemic, Statistica’s records show.

Indonesia’s tourism is strengthening though – in July 2022, the Indonesian National Statistic Bureau recorded over 470,000 foreign tourists arrivals in the country – the highest number since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in October last year.

Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch tweeted that the new laws will blow up Bali’s tourism.

A tour guide called Yoman, who has worked in Bali since 2017, told a globally acclaimed news media the impact from the new laws could be “very severe” right across Indonesia, but especially on the holiday island.

Bali has a history of events – both man-made and natural disasters – that have affected visitor numbers to the island.

The Gulf war, Bali bombing, volcano eruptions, Mount Semeru (volcano), Mount Rinjani (volcano) and then Covid. Bali tourism is easily affected, Yoman said.

But the Indonesian government has brought in initiatives to try and lure foreigners back to its idyllic shores.

Just a few weeks ago, it announced a tempting new visa option, allowing people to live on the island for up to 10 years.

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