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Sharia law curbs tourism on small island


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    The bungalows at Freddie Rousseau's small holiday resort on Santai Sumur Tiga beach have a view of the beach and the Andaman Sea. Freddie's is popular with couples.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    To get to Sabang, you can take an hour-long ferry ride from the mainland of Aceh. There is also a small airport. The Mayor of Sabang, Munawar Zainal, hopes someday more tourists will fly directly to the island.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    Iboih Beah has snorkeling, and it's a launch site for scuba diving.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    An American tourist prepares to enter the water for a scuba dive.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    In addition to the coral, Sabang has sea turtles, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, orcas, eels and other marine life.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    Sabang is part of Aceh and Aceh is Indonesia's only province under sharia or Islamic law. In Aceh sharia means, among other things, unmarried couples hanging out in private. A sign on the mainland of Aceh says, "If you are alone with someone who is not a family member, you invite a third, Satan."

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    Zulfikli Agani is the head of the local branch of the Wilayatul Hisbah, or WH -- called the "Sharia Police" in English. He says his force confiscates alcohol on the island because alcohol is prohibited in Islam.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    A sign near Iboih beach says, "Entering the Village, Dress Politely."

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

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    Freddie Rousseau says 10 years ago, much of Bali was underdeveloped like this but now Bali is over-exploited. He says hopes they can keep Sabang unspoiled, exotic and special.

    - Julia Simon / Marketplace

Sabang is part of Aceh and Aceh is Indonesia's only province under sharia or Islamic law. In Aceh sharia means, among other things, unmarried couples hanging out in private. A sign on the mainland of Aceh says, "If you are alone with someone who is not a family member, you invite a third, Satan."

Ismayudi Doden runs the Rubiah Tirta Dive Shop on Iboih beach. Doden also plants coral. He hopes Aceh loosens its Sharia laws for tourism development.

Kai Ryssdal: The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began today. It's had an uneven start in Syria, where the army's been firing on protesters all weekend, heavily, in fact.

In Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim country, thoughts are far from anti-government violence -- more along the lines of government-sponsored tourism. But strict Sharia law in some places isn't helping at all.

From Sabang Island, Indonesia, Julia Simon reports.


Julia Simon: With turquoise waves, white sands and a row of pretty bungalows overlooking the beach, Freddie Rousseau's small resort on Sabang is often fully booked.

Freddie Rousseau: A lot of people come here and from here, they plan to go to Bali. And as soon as they arrive in Bali, they phone us and say, 'Please can we come back, because there's no peace and quiet.'

There are fewer than 10 international-style hotels on Sabang right now, but the mayor, Munawar Zainal, wants to change that. He's trying to bring more hotels, and -- he hopes -- cruise ships. But Munawar says Sabang has some image issues as far as tourism goes because it's part of Aceh, the only Indonesian province under Sharia, or Islamic, law.

Munawar Zainal: If you are outside and you listen about Sharia Islam, maybe you are thinking that Aceh is another Afghanistan or another Iran, etc. It's not like that. It's only some people who trying to practice their religion.

Sharia applies to Muslims, and in Sabang, it means things like modest dress, no unmarried couples hanging out in private, and no alcohol. The man who heads up the police unit that enforces Sharia is Zulfikli Agani.

Zulfikli Agani: In the town of Sabang, we confiscate all the alcohol to make it clear that drinking is prohibited in our religion.

But in some restaurants, that's alcohol that tourists might want to drink.

Near the mosque in the town of Iboih, children play on the beach. Iboih's famous for its scuba diving, but it's hard to find a beer here. The local police tolerate alcohol at Freddie's and a few other tourist resorts, but Ismayudi Doden, who runs a scuba diving shop, would like to see rules relaxed across the whole island.

Ismayudi Doden: If Westerners come to the tourist resorts and ask for alcohol, but the restaurants don't have it, that affects tourism. Sharia law makes the tourists not want to come.

That's why the Sabang government is considering having more enclaves, special places like Freddie's where Sharia law doesn't apply and where tourists can feel more comfortable wearing bikinis and having a beer. After all, such enclaves are common in Muslim countries like Malaysia and the Maldives, says Mayor Munawar.

Munawar: Because they can attract tourism, high-class tourism, and they can increase their economy. So they can, what we call, harmonize between Islamic Sharia and also tourism.

But back at Freddie's, British tourist Clare Imray says not having a lot of alcohol available has been nice, and a sort of detox. She says she hopes Sabang can develop its tourism industry, but at the same time keep its distinct culture.

Clare Imray: Very traditional, Indonesian. You really get a feel that you're really in Indonesia and it's not just built for the tourists. Hopefully they won't overdevelop it so much that it loses that feel, why I liked it in the first place.

She's not alone in that hope. Resort owner Freddie Rousseau says he too will do everything he can to keep the island unspoiled, special -- and not Bali.

In Sabang, I'm Julia Simon for Marketplace.

Sabang is part of Aceh and Aceh is Indonesia's only province under sharia or Islamic law. In Aceh sharia means, among other things, unmarried couples hanging out in private. A sign on the mainland of Aceh says, "If you are alone with someone who is not a family member, you invite a third, Satan."

Ismayudi Doden runs the Rubiah Tirta Dive Shop on Iboih beach. Doden also plants coral. He hopes Aceh loosens its Sharia laws for tourism development.

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The sad thing about Pulau Weh is the local women who work in restaurants and resorts prey on men (whether married or not). A close friend was simply seduced by a local widow (38). She made it so darn obvious that she was available and now texts him for rent money. He wanted sex not a relationship. They don't understand Westerners at all. These women are Muslims and are hypocrites. I am really sad that many Muslims value money over their religion. One expects it in Thailand but not from Muslim women.

I loved Pulau Weh - and to be honest I also quite liked the fact that you couldn't get a beer at every 10 paces, if you REALLY needed one you can find it but it's not shoved down your throat like in Bali and the Gilis. I did feel however that even when I covered up I felt a little uncomfortable at some points with staring etc., but as a solo woman backpacker that feeling is not uncommon.

I liked not having beer in Pulau Weh. The diving is amazing out there, and heavy drinking doesn't mix well with diving any way. I actually enjoyed a break from the incessant 'happy hour marketing that pervades the rest of the SE Asian tourist scenes, Like the ever present "Reggae Night" happy hour, sometimes it is is nice to get away from the homogenizing 'backpacker/travel' culture Greg does a good job of describing and actually adjust to local customs. I couldn't even find a decent organic spinach and feta salad, like you encounter at all the other regular haunts in Thailand and Bali- which was a good thing.

The stark difference in Sha'ria implementation is seen on the ferry back from Pulau Weh to the mainland. Banda Aceh is much more strict than Pulau Weh, and you can watch the women of the island put on their headscarves as they approach the mainland of Sumatra.

Now Lake Toba is another fascinating former tourist hotspot, with a long history of "Reggae night" happy hours and magic pizzas, hosted by the local Christian Batak people, who in no way participate in the Sharia system.....

Having traveled in Indonesia, I should think the restriction of alcohol would barely register on any traveler’s radar screen of enjoyment. Many a hotel or hostel in Indonesia is located very near a mosque, and call to prayer begins promptly at 4:30 AM. It’s not the best place in the world to sleep off a hangover. Also, too many foreign resorts try to appeal to Westerners with Western culture: I first saw Pulp Fiction at a restaurant in Bali, and the contrast with my immediate environment was more embarrassing than anything. I’ve heard The Eagles blaring out the doors of a diner in Yangshuo, China; watched Braveheart in another in Bangkok, and witnessed the hordes of Westerners that (used to) flock to Kuta, Bali to eat pizza and drink beer in front of a football game airing on a 72” panel TV screen. Sometimes, you just have to adapt. In Pushkar, India, the whole town is vegetarian, and you will be too, if you travel there. Enjoying and discovering another country—its people and culture—is what travel is all about, isn’t it? (By the way, I hear the mushroom omelets in Lake Toba, Sumatra are excellent.)

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