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Will Bali and Indo ban booze?

Where will surfers go when Bali bans alcohol?

A proposed ban on alcohol in Indonesia, which could see surfers deserting its dream island of Bali in droves, might have positive knock-on effects for emerging surfing hot-spots elsewhere

The proposed nationwide ban on the production, distribution and consumption of drinks containing more than one percent of alcohol was introduced by two Islamist parties, the Prosperous Justice Party and the United Development Party. Although still in its early stages, the bill is reportedly being debated by Indonesia’s House of Representatives.

Unlike most of predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Bali’s 4.25-million population is chiefly Hindu. In 2014, the paradisiacal island welcomed 3.76 million tourists – up 15 percent from the previous year. With its world-class waves and highly developed tourism infrastructure, Bali is beloved of avid surfers, many of whom head for Uluwatu, Keramas, or Padang Padang. But with cold Bintang beers and indulgent cocktails being intrinsic to most Bali vacations, an alcohol ban would likely decimate the island’s surf tourism.

“No matter how beautiful the country is, if they can’t find alcohol, they won’t want to come here,” said Hariyadi Sukamdani, head of the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association, in an interview with the Jakarta Post.

There’s stiff resistance to the proposed ban from vested parties. According to the Indonesia-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, an estimated 130,000 jobs would be lost as a direct or secondary result of such prohibition. The Southeast Asian country’s alcohol industry earns around $430 million annually, with approximately $450 million generated in excise taxes. According to news.com.au, as many as 17 beverage and distributor are expected to fold if the ban becomes law.

While the proposed new legislation may make some exceptions for travelers, religious rituals and customary activities, prohibition nonetheless seems to run counter to the stated goal of President Joko Widodo’s administration of attracting 20 million foreign tourists to Indonesia by 2019 – double its 2015 goal.

Yet there’s evidence that many Indonesian legislators are deadly serious about at least curbing the availability of alcohol and the societal impact of its consumption. In 2015, despite opposition from the tourism and alcohol industries, then trade minister Rachmat Gobel issued Ministerial Regulation No. 6/2015 on the distribution of alcoholic beverages, which prohibits supermarkets and minimarts from selling drinks containing more than 5 percent alcohol. Continuing this trend, Papua province imposed a complete alcohol ban in April, and a similar bylaw was approved in Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, in May.

Despite its estimated economic impact, there may be considerable support for an alcohol ban among Indonesia’s estimated 255 million inhabitants. The intention of the draft bill currently before the House of Representatives is to “protect citizens from the negative impacts of alcoholic beverages, to raise awareness of the dangers of the beverages, and to ensure order and peace in society, free from disturbances caused by consumers”.

Such sentiment was further fueled by the April gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl on the Indonesian island of Sumatra by young men reportedly drunk on “tuak” palm wine. In an increasingly conservative society, the sight of booze-soaked, loud and sometimes lascivious tourists can be an affront to local values and an unwelcome influence on Indonesian youth.

History suggests that bootleggers will step in to at least partially meet demand during any alcohol ban (as in Prohibition Era America, 1920-1933). But the already headline-making debilitating and occasionally deadly effects of local, often methanol-based moonshine would likely deter more Bali-bound surfers than it attracted.

The escalating cost of importing alcohol into Indonesia has already spawned a corresponding rise in the sale of home-brewed alcoholic beverages in Bali. Serious illness, including permanent blindness, has been reported following consumption of local, rice-based arak and spirit-based cocktails containing toxic chemicals (and often with apparently “legitimate” labels).

In 2013, an Australian woman was blinded for two days after drinking cocktails in Kuta, Bali. Four years earlier, 25 people died in on the island after drinking a batch of tainted arak.

The New Zealand government’s SafeTravel website advises: “Travelers to Bali … need to be cautious about consuming alcoholic beverages, particularly cocktails and drinks made with spirits that may have been adulterated with harmful substances.”

Should Indonesia ban alcohol, the inadvertent “winners” could be lesser-known surfers’ paradises around the globe. With an estimated 35 million surfing enthusiasts worldwide (and counting), the demise of Bali as wave-seekers’ magnet could have dramatic implications for rising rival destinations.

A Bali trip, particularly for American and European surfers, is an expensive undertaking often planned far in advance. Even the prospect of alcohol not being (safely) available on the island could divert their attention to surf camps in the likes of northern Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Senegal, which similarly boast incredible natural beauty and low local prices, but without threat to the free flow of cold brews and cocktails.

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