How Indonesia’s new sex laws will affect tourists

(CNN) — International travelers are flocking back to the popular resort island of Bali as the Covid pandemic eases, raising hopes Indonesia’s ailing tourism industry is on the road to recovery.

But controversial new legislation banning cohabitation and sex outside marriage was passed in Parliament this week. The laws apply not only to residents, but also to foreign expats and tourists in the country – which has experts worried.
Though the changes are expected to take effect for at least three years, industry stakeholders tell CNN the new penal code could discourage foreigners from visiting and tarnish the country’s global reputation by starving vital tourism revenues.

A trend reversal for tour operators

“From our point of view as tourism industry stakeholders, this law will be very counterproductive for the tourism industry in Bali – especially the chapters on sex and marriage,” said Putu Winastra, chairman of the country’s largest tourism group, the Association of The Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies (ASITA ).

The new laws are seen as a response to rising religious conservatism in Muslim-majority Indonesia in recent years, with parts of the country enforcing strict Islamic codes. In Bali, the population is predominantly Hindu and therefore tends to have a more liberal social milieu that appeals to western tourists.

Indonesian lawmakers have defended the new laws, saying they are an attempt to satisfy “public entitlement” in a diverse nation. Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said on Tuesday it was not easy for a multicultural and multi-ethnic country to enact a penal code that “takes into account all interests”.

Winastra says the new laws caught him and others off guard because they felt the government was very enthusiastic about increasing foreign tourist arrivals. “Now there will be rules and laws that will weigh on tourists and the industry,” he added.

Like most major tourist hotspots around the world, Bali has suffered significant economic turmoil during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From more than 500,000 foreign visitors per month, the number of arrivals fell to just 45 throughout 2021.

But as the pandemic receded, government and tourism industry officials had forecast a healthy rebound that could potentially bring billions of dollars in revenue to Indonesia’s economy.

Earlier this year, the World Travel & Tourism Council, a global industry body, predicted 10% annual growth for Indonesia’s travel industry over the next 10 years, predicting that the sector would contribute nearly $118 billion to the country’s GDP and create more than 500,000 would jobs every year for the next decade.

Local tour guide Ken Katut told CNN Travel he believes things are “moving in the right direction” in the tourism industry after G20 leaders held a summit in Bali in November.

The hotels were swarming with delegates, Ken said, and he was “thrilled” to be busy ferrying tourists around the island.

“The G20 was great for us who were unemployed during the pandemic,” he said. “It really brought Bali back to life.”

Now, some fear momentum is fading just as it picks up steam again.

what to know

Tourists are flocking back to Bali as the pandemic has subsided.

Johannes P. Christo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Under the new penal code, anyone – Indonesian or foreign – found guilty of adultery or premarital relations faces 12 months in prison. It is not yet clear how these laws will be enforced.

“Do tourist couples (visiting Bali) have to prove they are married? Should we ask them if they are married or not?” Putu wonders.

“Foreign tourists will now think twice before traveling to Bali because they could be jailed for breaking the law.”

Rights groups have noted that the laws will disproportionately affect women and members of the gay community, adding that they “could provide a route for selective enforcement”.

Hotel operators have also objected to the laws, saying they would find it difficult to enforce them.

“Asking couples whether they are married or not is a very private area and it will be an impossible task to do so,” said Ida Bagus Purwa Sidemen, executive director of the Indonesia Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI).

Sidemen believes the Indonesian government will review the laws after a public backlash. “We just can’t ask every couple about their legal marital status. That’s going to cause us big problems,” he said.

“But what will happen to us now if the new laws deter tourists? Will we go back to how we were during the pandemic?

“The government can’t want tourists (income) and at the same time enforce these laws that put people off. It just doesn’t make sense.”

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