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What Canadian travellers need to know about the new sex law in this popular destination

Some local travellers are reconsidering plans.
The Indonesian government approved a new criminal code that forbids everything from sex outside marriage to cohabitation before marriage in December 2022.

One of the most popular travel destinations in the world has come under the global microscope following the announcement of new laws that ban sex outside of marriage. 

Bali, Indonesia tops the list for a wide spectrum of globetrotters, from honeymooners to sun-worshippers to new-age spiritualists to college-aged partiers and just about everyone in between -- and that's just scratching the surface. 

For many travellers, the South Asian oasis offers a rare blend of culture, natural beauty, high-end resorts, low-cost accommodations, and a spiritual gravity that few other places command. People from across the world travel to the tropical province to live, work, and holiday; some stay for a spell, and others fall in love with its paradisaical charms and never leave. 

But the recent announcement regarding its laws dampened the sunny aspirations of many travellers -- particularly those who travel solo or with a partner they aren't married to. 

On Dec. 6, the Indonesian government approved a new criminal code that forbids everything from sex outside marriage to cohabitation before marriage to critiques of the government. 

The announcement sent shock waves across Indonesia and around the world, raising concerns about civil rights and religious extremism in the country with the world's fourth-highest population. 

According to a local expert, however, the latest announcement doesn't mark as significant a departure from current laws as they might appear.

Not only will the laws not come into effect for a few years -- meaning that there is ample time for them to change -- but University of British Columbia (UBC) History Professor Dr. John Roosa says the Indonesian government already exercised its power over people's sexual and romantic lives.

"There are already laws that allow the police to raid people's homes if they suspect that there's any kind of illicit sexual activity," he told Vancouver Is Awesome, adding that this typically affects places where LGBTQAI2S+ people are living.

But some provinces are decidedly conservative, while others, such as tourist mecca Bali, attract visitors for their more relaxed attitudes, added Roosa. 

"Indonesia is much more democratic than most other countries in South East Asia. And these laws can be brought before the constitutional court which can deem them unconstitutional," noted the professor, who has written extensively about Indonesian politics.

Roosa also doesn't believe that this law will be applied evenly to tourists and locals alike -- and the Indonesian consulate in Vancouver shares this sentiment. 

How Indonesia's law could affect tourism from Canada and  the world

While the law will technically apply to both foreigners and Indonesians, Prakoso Wicaksono, a spokesperson for the Indonesian consulate in Vancouver, underscored that the new law is "aimed at protecting the institution of marriage based on Indonesian values" and is not meant to target tourism. 

When asked if couples will need to prove that they are married before visiting Indonesia, Wicaksono expects the tourist experience will largely be the same and that the tourism sector will not be obliged to "confirm or cross-check" status. 

That said, the sweeping new laws "would like to encourage single people to get married before premarital sex," he told V.I.A.

The law may also only be reported by an immediate family member (legitimate parents/spouse/children) with no other parties given the right to do so. As such, it makes reporting the sexual activity of tourists rather difficult, if not impossible. 

But if a tourist has sexual relations with an Indonesian citizen, that could pose a potential issue -- and there is a penalty for this crime.

The penalty for this crime, if proven guilty, is six months to one year prison sentence or a fine of 10 million Rupiah ($872 CAD). 

The new Criminal Code will take effect three years after its ratification to "give time for the people to have a correct and clear understanding of the new law."

Wicaksono added that "the Government of Indonesia still upholds the privacy of investors and foreign tourists investing and travelling in Indonesia. The Government of Indonesia will continue to guarantee people's privacy without reducing Indonesian values."

Some tourists may still opt to go elsewhere

John Korenic, an aviation consultant and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, told V.I.A. that he is concerned about the impact on tourism the new laws will have.

"I believe this will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the inbound Indonesia tourism industry. In 2019, there were 16.1 million tourists entering Indonesia, a significant portion going to Bali," he said. "Canadians appear to have accounted for only 103,000. Perhaps not surprising given the distance and the fact that there is no non-stop service from anywhere in Canada to Indonesia. So we represent a fairly small segment for Indonesian tourism.

"Australia, however, represented the fourth largest segment of tourists with 1.4 million. So I would expect a potential loss of Australian tourists to have a significant impact on Indonesia." 

When it comes to how the law will be interpreted, Korenic expressed concern over the "discretion law enforcement may have." Tourists may opt to travel to other attractive options in the region to avoid any potential misunderstandings. 

"A family member of mine is travelling to Singapore in January and was planning a side trip to Indonesia (Bintan). With this announcement, she is seriously considering changing her plans and may spend more time in Singapore or alternatively stay at a resort nearby in Malaysia," he noted.

Canadians may decide to visit other hot spots, such as Thailand or Vietnam, particularly since Air Canada has just introduced a new direct option to Bangkok