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Sharia law curbs tourism on small island

Julia Simon Aug 1, 2011

Sharia law curbs tourism on small island

Julia Simon Aug 1, 2011

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.

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