Dfat updates travel advice for Indonesia: how will Australian tourists be affected by laws banning sex outside marriage?

<span>Photograph: Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesia has long had a booming tourist industry focused mainly on the island of Bali. In 2019, before the pandemic drastically cut tourist numbers, Indonesia recorded 16 million foreign arrivals. But now there are concerns over what the outlawing of sex outside marriage could mean for foreign visitors and tourists, particularly on the tourism-dependent island of Bali.

The Australian government has already updated its travel advice for Indonesia, warning tourists about the penalties for cohabitation and sex outside marriage that will come into force in the country in three years’ time.

Here is what we know so far.

What are Indonesia’s new laws banning sex outside marriage?

The laws are part of the Indonesian government’s overhaul of the criminal code, which includes a number of draconian laws that put the country’s democratic freedoms at risk. The law also prohibits couples who are not married from living together.

Related: ‘A little nerve-racking’: worry and scepticism in Bali over ban on sex outside marriage

The important caveat to the law banning sex outside marriage and cohabitation is that charges can only be made by police if the report is lodged by the accused’s spouse, parents, or children.

The laws will also not come into force for another three years. But Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer who works for Amnesty International, said the fact the laws have passed means it could encourage vigilantes to conduct raids on the homes of people suspected of breaking the soon to be law.

Yet it’s unlikely the laws banning sex outside marriage and cohabitation will be enforced broadly, according to Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. This is due to the fact millions of Indonesians currently live together – many with children – and without a marriage certificate.

Instead, he said the laws will be selectively enforced, and most likely in cases where a family member disproves of a relationship and wants to use the laws as a weapon.

“My son is 25 and he has a girlfriend, let’s say I disagree with the relationship so I politely ask my son to break up with her but he refuses, I could then use [the laws] to report him or her to the police,” Harsono said. “That is the most possible scenario where we’ll see the laws enforced.”

What could the laws mean for tourists?

Similar to local people, Harsono said the likely scenario where a foreign visitor would be found to have committed an offence is if a family member is disgruntled with a relationship and reports it to police.

Taufik Basari, a legislator of Indonesia’s NasDem party, has said that given the impact the laws could have on tourism, it’s important the public understands reports should only be made if the family feels “it’s really important”.

“As a parliamentarian, I will try to find more limitations for the implementation of these articles,” he said.

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

But even with the tempered risk, Indonesia’s tourism operators are concerned how the laws will impact the industry. Harsono said it could result in authorities asking hotels and villas for bribes to look the other way.

Gunn Wisobo, an owner of a boutique hotel in Bali, said he worries how the laws will impact his business.

“When tourists come here, they want to know it’s a safe space,” he said.

What could it mean for foreign visitors in same-sex relationships?

How the laws could affect people in same-sex relationships is a point of contention.

Same-sex marriage is not recognised in Indonesia and LGBTQI+ people have long been victimised for their sexual identity. Harsono said given same-sex marriage is not recognised and any sexual relationship between an LGBTQI+ couple is considered extramarital, the community is at high risk.

Related: Indonesia passes legislation banning sex outside marriage

But the laws criminalising extramarital sex and cohabitation only specify only a man and a woman, not same-sex couples. Sodomy is also not outlawed in Indonesia.

This is why Dede Oetomo, an activist with Indonesian LGBTQI+ rights organisation GAYa Nusantara, said he is cautiously optimistic the laws won’t further quash the rights of LGBTQI+ people.

He also said that Bali has long had a thriving gay scene in the areas popular for tourists. The province is considered a haven among LGBTQI+ Indonesians, many of whom have fled to the province from other parts of Indonesia.

Wisobo is one of these people. He married his partner 24 years ago in the Netherlands and moved to Bali for their safety.

“I’m not concerned for the LGBTQI+ community [being prosecuted under the laws] at the moment, but I am for young heterosexual couples,” he said.