Anti-Homosexuality Crusade in Indonesia Could Impact Bali Tourism Industry

An event last year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ubud generated an uproar in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia. Last September, in a karma-related ceremony confirming the link between two men, an Indonesian and an American. The couple who lives in the USA wanted to seal their fate symbolically in the Island of the Gods, one of Asia’s favourite destinations for LGBT travellers.

Many Bali officials showed their indignation over same-sex weddings although these are just blessing ceremonies. Gay weddings are indeed not recognised in Indonesia. The sales assistant at Four Seasons who organised the ceremony was consequently charged for religious blasphemy.

Although Bali is mostly Hindu, officials spread the word that same-sex unions are “unnatural”. A wrong justification as Hinduism has always been very accommodating towards homosexuality including in the ancient term of “Vedas” designating the ‘third sex’. Southeast Asia has been for centuries relatively tolerant to same-sex experiences- the notion of ‘sin’ being introduced lately by both Christian priests and Muslim clerics. A few years ago, the organiser of a LGBT Film Festival in Indonesia was mentioning about old tales depicting love affairs between Javanese males in royal courts.

The Bali uproar comes at a time of increasing intolerance of Indonesian officials against the sexual-oriented minority despite the fact that no national laws specifically criminalize same-sex behaviour.

However, since the beginning of 2016, a number of officials -from the Mayor of Bandung to Members of Parliament and even Ministers-have been targeting Indonesia’s LGBT communities with harsh words. A few months ago,  Indonesia’s Defense Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, equated the country’s LGBT rights movement with “a form of proxy war” more dangerous than nuclear warfare, while an Indonesian lawmaker asked to put to death LGBT people.

Many politicians are now pleading for a ban of any LGBT-related activities (such as students groups), for the implementation of reeducation programs to counter any potential tendencies to homosexuality and for a change of the constitution to turn homosexuality into a crime. A group is now lobbying the parliament to obtain this constitutional revision.

Conservative newspaper Republika makes its headline with the title "LGBT a Serious Threat" (Photo Human Rights Watch)
Conservative newspaper Republika makes its headline with the title “LGBT a Serious Threat” (Photo Human Rights Watch)

On August 3, the Jakarta Post reported that a group of academics and activists had requested that the Constitutional Court annul a number of articles in the Criminal Code to make it illegal for homosexuals to engage in sexual activities.
The petitioners told the court that homosexuality was “contagious” and that it “could trigger a spike in HIV infections”.

A report from Human Rights Watch released this week gives a pessimistic perspective of Indonesia’s homosexual community and points to a marked deterioration over their rights this year. “What began as public condemnation quickly grew into calls for criminalization and “cures”, laying bare the depth and breadth of officials’ individual prejudices”, reports HRW.

Asked about the government’s position following the release of the report, Presidential spokesman Johan Budi declared that “there was “no room” for the gay community in Indonesia.  “Rights of citizens like going to school and getting an ID card are protected, but there is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement,” he declared.

This kind of comments could trigger a potential boycott of the destination by LGBT communities. Although Indonesia does certainly look more to lure Chinese travellers than the LGBT market, a negative image over intolerance towards LGBT travellers would hurt over all Bali Island.

Bali is regularly named among the top five favourite destinations for gay tourists when visiting Asia. Bali has never been shy to lure this market segment. Seminyak, Kuta or Ubud villages developed over years into gay-friendly destinations on the island. They are at least two dozens of balinese hotels being present on gay booking engines.

The potential disappearing of gay travellers from Bali would certainly hurt tourism on the island. According to various source reports, it is estimated that 4% to 10% of the world’s population is considered gay, lesbian or transgender. If this ratio is applied to Bali total foreign travellers, this would give a number of 150,000 to 350,000 travellers. Although the number does not seem that high, it is generally a high-spending niche market. On booking websites targeting LGBT, most hotels are generally in the range of four to five stars.

LGBT travellers do not only spend money at hotels and restaurants but also at spas, shops, tours and sport activities. Studies show that the global LGBT travel market is estimated to have an annual value of around US$200 billion…

If Indonesia gets tougher on its LGBT community, Bali should then take officially distance if it wants to avoid collateral damage. Intolerance in Bali to this community, as recently expressed with the debate over the blessing of gay couples- would certainly undermine a very lucrative market and create irreparable damage to the island’s image.

Human Rights Watch Report under