Indonesia has recently banned sex outside of marriage for everyone, including visitors. Here’s what you need to know.  

You might want to reconsider that ticket to paradise: on December 6, Indonesia’s Parliament amended a colonial-era criminal code with laws restricting human rights and civil liberties, including a ban on sex outside of marriage. 

The amendments, which also include penalties for defaming the president, spreading fake news and committing religious blasphemy in the majority-Muslim country, apply to locals and foreigners alike. The laws will gradually take effect over three years, allowing time to draft regulations. 

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The Southeast Asian nation, known for Bali’s sugar-sand beaches and Sumatra’s active volcanoes, was expecting to see tourism reach pre-pandemic levels by 2025, providing a much-needed economic boost in the wake of COVID-19. But with this draconian legislation, the country will likely experience setbacks. 

“We deeply regret the government have closed their eyes. We have already expressed our concern to the Ministry of Tourism about how harmful this law is,” Maulana Yusran, deputy chief of Indonesia’s tourism industry board, told Reuters. The new code, which he calls “totally counter-productive” raises red flags not only for foreigners visiting the country but for the future of Indonesia’s democracy. 

Here’s everything travelers should know about the laws and how they might impact their plans. 

Canopy for romantic photo shoots, Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.
A wedding gazebo in Gunung Agung, Bali © Valery Bocman/Getty Images

What do the laws cover?  

Under the new criminal code, blasphemy can lead to five years in prison, slandering the sitting president or vice president can lead to four, insulting the government can lead to three and spreading fake news is punishable by up to a six-year sentence. Associating with an organization that follows Marxist-Leninist ideology can lead to a whopping 10-year sentence. The limits on expression will likely curtail free speech throughout the nation. 

Sex outside of marriage can be punished with up to a one-year prison term; living with someone who isn’t your spouse can lead to six months. Charges must be based on police reports filed by parents, children or spouses. 

What’s the story behind this conservative turn in Indonesia? 

The fall of dictator Suharto in 1998 led to a series of democratic gains in Indonesia. Yet in recent years, conservative Islamic ideology has grown increasingly popular. Roughly 87% of Indonesia identifies as Muslim, and though the conservative sect makes up a minority in Parliament, their influence is vast.

In some parts of the country, strict Islamic laws are already enforced, as in the province of Aceh, where people can be whipped for gambling, drinking alcohol, meeting members of the opposite sex and engaging in same-sex sexual activity. 

It remains unclear how strictly officials will enforce the new criminal code. Still, as Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press, these laws will lead to more corruption, giving police freedom to extort bribes and jail political enemies.

“The danger of oppressive laws is not that they will be broadly applied,” said Harsono. “it is that they provide an avenue for selective enforcement.”

Travelers gather under traditional Balinese umbrellas on a beach bar in Seminyak © Getty

What does this mean for tourists in Indonesia? 

The ambiguity of the new criminal code and how it will be enforced leaves foreigners in a gray zone. Because charges of adultery or cohabitation can only be filed by close relatives, law-breaking tourists might go undetected. Moreover, reporting foreigners goes against the interests of Western-style hotels in vacation destinations like Bali, which rely on tourist dollars to stay afloat. 

But for singles looking to mingle or unwed couples hoping for a romantic escape, possible jail time isn’t synonymous with “relaxing beach vacation.” Unless Indonesia relaxes the laws, travelers must consider if the risk is worth the reward.

How do these laws impact the LGBTIQ+ community? 

Parliament removed a proposal in the legislation making same-sex sexual activity illegal – but this does little to protect LGBTIQ+ people. Indonesian law does not recognize same-sex marriage, so criminalizing sex out of wedlock still punishes LGBTIQ+ folks. 

Tuesday’s ruling is yet another setback in a long string of losses for the community. Dangerous propaganda spewed by politicians in recent years has created a hostile environment for LGBTIQ+ locals. In a 2019 Pew Research report, only 9% of Indonesians said homosexuality should be accepted by society. Police raids on community centers are common, and a lack of anti-discrimination laws makes LGBTIQ+ people susceptible to violent attacks. 

For foreign LGBTIQ+ travelers, Indonesia’s reactionary politics leaves a question that begs to be answered: is a beach vacation worth it when you have to stay in the closet?

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