Welcome to wonderful Aceh, land of sun, sand - and canings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am

'Visit Aceh - see sharia law in action, including public canings.'

It is not your standard tourist billboard but one that the head of Aceh's tourism department believes could be used to market the region as a holiday destination, if his recent comments are anything to go by.

'Like any other provinces in Indonesia, Aceh has a wealth of natural and historical attractions. But we are the only one that has sharia,' Cipta Hunai said. 'This gives Aceh tourism a unique characteristic that, we believe, can attract tourists.'

Aceh was given the right to legislate provisions of sharia in 1999, when it was also granted special status. In 2001, the law granting Aceh special autonomy allowed the creation of Islamic courts.

Mr Hunai explained that the benefits of sharia lay both in the society it created and in the 'sights' it offered.

'The good, clean, safe and peaceful environment we have here thanks to sharia, is something tourists appreciate,' he said.

'Also, here tourists can visit the many beautiful mosques we have, see people wearing Muslim clothes and appreciate what life is like in an Islamic community based on the Koran. They can even see how sharia law is applied.'

Mr Hunai believes the public caning of sinners could be a drawcard.

Sharia police enforce laws that criminalise the sale and consumption of alcohol, gambling, non-Islamic dress and illicit relations between men and women - offences for which dozens have been caned.

'Punishments are carried out to prevent bad behaviour among Muslims, but they could also be good for tourism,' he said, denying that overseas visitors could be put off by seeing sharia police roam the streets of the province's cities looking for those who misbehave.

'I don't think they are going to scare the tourists. To defend truth and justice is not something scary. I believe tourists would agree.'

Critics say sharia law discriminates against the poor and women.

Mr Hunai said the province had started marketing itself as a spiritual destination, but that the results were still to be assessed.

A small but rising number of visitors are making the trip to Aceh. This year about 4,500 overseas visitors and 650,000 domestic visitors have come to the province.

The latest edition of the Lonely Planet goes so far as saying that Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are 'so 2002', and, 'Aceh is the place to go'.