concern and skepticism in Bali about the ban on sex outside marriage

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As the sun rose over Canggu, one of Bali’s most popular beaches, the atmosphere was calm on Wednesday. Like any other day in paradise, the water was filled with morning surfers and the sand strewn with sunbathers. This morning, however, was different.

A day earlier, Indonesia’s parliament confirmed that sex outside marriage would be outlawed in a draconian overhaul of the country’s penal code. The reforms, which are expected to take effect in three years, will include a ban on cohabitation between unmarried couples and will apply to Indonesians and tourists.

The news sparked a backlash from rights activists and caused protests in Jakarta. However, reactions in one of Indonesia’s most visited tourist destinations have ranged from skepticism to concern.

Related: Indonesia’s sexual ‘morality’ laws are just one part of a wider, chilling crackdown on dissent

“These rules were proposed a few years ago, and it didn’t happen… so I don’t know if the government will actually implement them,” Santi Aprilia, an Indonesian housewife, tells the Guardian.

“Indonesia needs tourists to come, but what if foreigners who are not married want to come here? I think it will be difficult to implement this kind of rule,” she says.

A Balinese surf teacher who identified himself as Tony, 28, was equally skeptical that the penal code would affect Bali. “I don’t think it will happen because in Indonesia there are not only Muslims but all religions,” he says.

Fears for tourism

While Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, is a Muslim-majority country, the dominant religion in Bali is Hinduism. Bali has also emerged as a liberal enclave in recent decades, spurred on by the more than 300,000 tourists a month that usually visit the island, according to the latest census. Tourism, however, is also a point of concern triggered by the announcement.

Putu Slamet, 24, is a local driver who believes tourism could be negatively affected by the new rules. Due to get married next year, he doesn’t live with his partner but knows he could be a deterrent to young couples from abroad.

“If they come here and can’t have sex before marriage, they will think again about coming to Bali or even Indonesia,” she said.

Slamet’s concerns are echoed by others working in tourism on Bali’s south coast.

“I already have a couple of guests talking about it,” says Black Pearl hostel manager Michelle Setiawan. She was earlier delayed visiting the Indonesian island of Lombok after she was asked to show proof of her affair. Setiawan isn’t even sure how that ban will be enforced.

“I feel like it doesn’t make any sense,” she says. “I understand why it is majority Muslim [country]but there are also non-Muslims here, so it’s not right”.

‘go back in time’

As for the island’s expat community, it was another day in the remote office. However, similar conversations about the new rules have crept in.

“I feel a little sorry for Bali because it feels like stepping back in time,” says 37-year-old travel blogger Christina Jerger. Fan of the film Eat, Pray, Love, she felt the news showed Bali in a different light.

A souvenir vendor walks among tourists at a Canggu beach. Photography: Made Nagi/EPA

The new revised version of the penal code specifies that only parents and children will be able to report sexual activity to the authorities. However, the uncertainty about enforcement remains a point of contention.

Jerger adds, “It depends on how they operate afterward and how they control it. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t concern me at all, I’m still thinking about it.”

For couples whose parents could report them, it is a sobering reality. An Australian resident living with his Indonesian girlfriend who asked not to be named “because of the law” says he is “a little nervous”.

“Obviously there are so many great things to experience in Bali… but things like that hanging over your head are a bit unnerving. Probably because of my girlfriend and friends, it seems more worrying for Indonesians.”

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