How will Indonesia’s strict new sex laws affect tourists in Bali?

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Indonesia, a favourite holiday destination for beach-seekers, spiritual types, divers and surfers, has passed dramatic new legislation that will ban sex and cohabitation outside of marriage.

The country, made up of more than 17,000 islands between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, is popular for visits to islands such as Bali – generally thought of as a liberal, tourist-welcoming destination – as well as diving hotspot Raja Ampat, and Komodo, home to the “Komodo dragon” lizard.

However, the Republic of Indonesia’s new criminal code, passed on 6 December, will make sex outside of marriage punishable by up to one year in jail.

It will also ban couples living together outside of marriage, and prohibit insulting the president or expressing ideas contrary to government policy.

When the legislation was first drafted in 2019, it provoked nationwide outrage and resulted in protests. However, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country has gradually become more conservative and rejected the former policies of colonisers such as the Netherlands.

Deputy justice minister, Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, told Reuters last week: “We’re proud to have a criminal code that’s in line with Indonesian values.”

So what does this mean for a future holiday to Indonesia’s beautiful islands?

Here’s everything you need to know about the changes to the country’s laws.

When do the new laws come into effect?

The new criminal code will not be enforced for three years – in late 2025 – authorities have reported. This is to allow for legislation to be implemented across the widely scattered nation.

This means it is unlikely that holidays booked for the next year or two will be affected, and travellers should experience Indonesia as they have in previous years.

A specific 2025 date and month has yet to be announced for the criminal code to be officially in place. The Independent has contacted Indonesia tourism representatives for comment.

Does the code apply to locals only, or tourists too?

It will apply to residents and visitors to the islands alike, though its unclear at present how tourist behaviour will be tracked or reported on.

The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, says: “From what I have read about the proposed law banning sex outside marriage, it appears targeted specifically at people who live in Indonesia. Prosecutions will take place only if a formal complaint is made by the parents of an unmarried person (or, in the case of extra-marital sex, by the spouse of the perpetrator). Those circumstances look unlikely to arise for a couple on a typical holiday to Bali or elsewhere.

“A very similar law is in effect in the United Arab Emirates. The Foreign Office says: ‘In the case of an extra-marital consensual sexual relationship, if either person’s spouse or parent/guardian files a criminal complaint, then both parties of an extra-marital consensual relationship shall be liable to a jail sentence for a period not less than six months.’ I am unaware of any Western tourists (as opposed to expatriates living in the UAE) ever having been penalised in this way, and I am sure that the same will prevail in Indonesia if and when such a law is passed.”

What are the most worrying aspects of the code?

The key clauses focused on by human rights activists are those prohibiting sex and cohabitation outside of marriage.

If enforced, this could mean that unmarried couples would be breaking the law by visiting together and sharing accommodation. However, drafts of the new legislation seen by campaigners include wording around family members or close acquaintances of people in the islands being the only ones who can “report” illegal behaviour, so it would be down to hotel policies on the subject. These are as yet unclear.

Just as concerning are laws making it illegal to protest without “notifying” authorities, bans against insulting the president and prohibition of apostasy or criticizing the government. This has raised concerns about the future of press freedom in the country.

Jail time may also be imposed for anyone disseminating information about contraception and birth control. Four-year sentences are a possibility for any woman who has an abortion in the country, with longer jail terms for those who perform one.

Some areas of Indonesia have already adopted strict local Sharia laws – the province of Aceh, for example, enforces an Islamic criminal code that extends to flogging residents for homosexual acts, and caning or imprisonment for gambling or drinking alcohol. Certain wording in the legislation has raised fears regions will be able to impose their own strict criminal codes in this manner.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, but campaigners say the new extra-marital laws threaten them by stealth, as lesbian and gay people cannot legally marry. Adultery is already illegal in Indonesia.

What are tour operators advising about future holidays?

No operators have announced changes to their pre-booked Indonesia or Bali holidays and tours. The general consensus is that tourists are not likely to be affected, though they may have their own concerns about travelling to countries with well publicised human rights issues.

A spokesperson for tour operator Kuoni told The Independent: “News about a controversial new code has caught media attention and may be a concern to anyone planning a holiday, as the new rules are reportedly applicable to foreign residents and tourists. As it stands the new code is a draft and is not due to come into effect until 2025, so there is no immediate change for anyone due to travel in the near future.

“Our ground agent in Bali has assured us that our valued guests should not be worried about travelling and they will be welcomed as they always are. From our perspective, we have a responsibility to advise customers about local laws, so it’s important that we monitor the development of this proposal and understand how it will be enforced so we are able to interpret this and give the right advice to our customers.

“Almost all of Kuoni’s bookings for Indonesia are to Bali, which ranks in the top five destinations for honeymoons. Whilst Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim faith country, Bali is the exception with 87 per cent of people identify as Hindu. We’ll continue to work with our destination partners to understand more about the situation as it develops, but right now it is a draft and there is no need for existing customers, or anyone considering a holiday to Bali, to be concerned.”

What have locals said about the law changes?

Maulana Yusran, deputy chief of Indonesia’s tourist board, said the new code was “totally counter-productive” at a time when the tourism scene is still bouncing back from the pandemic.

“We deeply regret that government have closed their eyes. We have already expressed our concern to the ministry of tourism about how harmful this law is,” he told Reuters.

“What we’re witnessing is a huge setback to Indonesia’s hard-won progress in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms after the 1998 revolution,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

“This criminal code should have never been passed in the first place.”

He added that “no meaningful changes” had been made since the code’s original draft in 2019, which sparked widespread protests.

However, Dr Albert Aries, spokesman for the socialization team of the new criminal code, told The Independent there was “nothing to worry about”, and that tourists and foreign business people would continue to feel “comfortable in Indonesia”.

He said: “The article on adultery in the new Criminal Code that will take effect three years later is the Absolute Complaint Offense. This means that only the husband or wife (for those who are married) or parents or children (for those who are not married) can make complaints [about extramarital sex and cohabitation].

“Other parties cannot report it … so there will be no legal process without complaints from the rightful party, who is directly harmed.

“We need to provide this clarification following the rise in misleading and fundamentally erroneous news regarding the article on adultery which is considered to have a negative impact in the tourism and investment sector in Indonesia.

“In fact, there are no substantive changes related to this article when compared to Article 284 of the old Criminal Code. The difference lies only in the addition of parties who have the right to complain and even if proven true, there are alternative sanctions of no more than 10 million Rupiah.

“So there’s really nothing to worry about. If all this time tourists and investors can be comfortable in Indonesia, then this condition will not change either.”

Mr Aries continued: “It is proper for Indonesia to pay respect to Indonesian marital values through this article, as long as this regulation does not violate the private space of the public, including visiting tourists and investors.

“Investors and foreign tourists don’t have to worry about investing and travelling in Indonesia, because people’s privacy is still guaranteed by law, of course without reducing respect for Indonesian values.”

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