Lifestyle & Belief

Indonesia's new tourism campaign: where are the Muslims?


An image used in the government-funded "Wonderful Indonesia" tourism campaign.

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim-majority nation and, naturally, Islam helps define the landscape. Provided they venture outside the Hindu island of Bali, most travelers to the archipelago will come home with memories of women in hijabs on the street and the Islamic calls to prayer in the air.

But you will find few traces of Muslim life in the latest "Wonderful Indonesia" campaign, a state-funded effort to draw in tourists.

In the chief promotional video (posted below), you won't find a single skull cap, hijab or minaret at sunset. Islamic life, one of Indonesia's defining qualities, is conspicuously absent.

Is this intentional?

Indonesia's tourism appeal (to the West at least) is marked by surfer dudes, majestic jungle vistas, Balinese myticism and cute orangutans. Naturally, these are the images that build successful state-funded tourism campaigns.

But watching this video (and last year's similar video) lends the impression that Islamic imagery may be considered an outright liability to Indonesia's tourism appeal. Compare this campaign to Thailand's "Amazing Thailand" videos, which waste little time in featuring orange-robed monks. Likewise, Buddhist-majority Myanmar's tourism pitch relies heavily on strolling monks and glimmering temples.

I'll do a little pro-bono favor for Indonesia's tourism authorities: the country is indeed wonderful and you should go if you have the chance.

Bali (especially its jungly interior) lives up the hype. Jakarta is chaotic, fascinating and a wild place to party. Even Aceh, feared for its Sharia law, is filled with sweet, welcoming people and unspoiled beaches. Its Shariah police chief, in an interview inside his station, told me earlier this year that non-Muslims are free to walk the coast in short shorts. It's not Saudi Arabia.

Indonesian vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front don't do tourism any favors when they make headlines for, say, cancelling Lady Gaga concerts with threats of violence. But they are a noisy, religious minority. Almost every country has them.

Go to Indonesia.

But expect to arrive in a nation filled with people guided by Islamic traditions.

The guy buying beer in front of you at the 7-11 may be one of them.