Keeping the Faith in Banda Aceh

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Pity the poor tourism officials of Aceh. Their job — promoting the beaches, jungles and rich culture of an unspoiled and underexplored Indonesian province — should be easy. But just as Aceh recovered from a decades-long civil war and a devastating tsunami, along came the Wilayatul Hisbah (vice and virtue patrol) to enforce Shari'a, or Islamic law. Its officers have raided unisex beauty salons, harassed women without headscarves and publicly caned gamblers and drinkers.

Aceh isn't the only Islamic society in Asia to cane transgressors. In February, three Malaysian women were subjected to several strokes each after being convicted of extramarital sex. But that sentence was meted out inside a Kuala Lumpur prison. If a proposal drafted last September by a group of Acehnese lawmakers had come to fruition, adulterers might have been stoned to death in public. Pristine beaches and alfresco executions? It's hardly a formula that's going to worry Phuket or Bali.

But don't write off Aceh yet. Thanks largely to four weekly flights from Kuala Lumpur operated by the budget carrier AirAsia, tourists are trickling into Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and for good reason. The city itself is leafy and slow-paced, while Acehnese people are proud, hospitable and keen to make up for years of isolation. Drive out along the west coast and you'll find white-sand bays studded with jungle-clad islands, beaches where 900-kg turtles lay their eggs, and forests where tigers prowl and gibbons peer down from the trees.

So how does one reconcile Shari'a law with the freewheeling demands of modern tourists? One answer, say tourist officials, is to emphasize faith rather than fundamentalism. Acehnese are famously devout — their province is often called the "Veranda of Mecca." Banda Aceh's tallest building is one of the minarets of the black-domed Grand Mosque, and the city still moves to the rhythms of five daily prayers. A campaign is now under way to promote it as "Indonesia's Islamic tourism city."

It might work, although Banda Aceh's tragic history remains more of a draw. Unlike Phuket, where the tsunami also struck, Aceh is not simply repairing a tourism infrastructure. It is building one from scratch and tsunami tours are proving popular — particularly in the domestic market. A fifth of Banda Aceh's population was wiped out on Dec. 26, 2004. Today, any trip to the city is incomplete without a visit to a ship heaved a mile inland and stranded amid the houses. On its top deck I meet Tisul Himat, 43, a trader from an island on Aceh's west coast, there with 10 members of her family. "We really wanted to see how Banda Aceh had been rebuilt," she says. "It's really beautiful now." Their next stop was the ship-shaped Aceh Tsunami Museum. This multimillion dollar boondoggle opened 14 months ago. You can sit in its shade and contemplate the scenic Dutch colonial cemetery next door.

For most foreigners, however, Aceh's main attraction is its stunning natural heritage, starting with beaches like Lampuuk. Just outside Banda Aceh, it has a bay with golden sand and crystal waters. Weh Island, a short ferry ride away, ranks among the region's best dive spots. While skimpy swimwear is definitely out, alcohol is sold — discreetly — to non-Muslim guests at a few beach resorts and Banda Aceh hotels. A bigger problem, admits one tourism official, is the cannabis that grows in abundance in Aceh's hills and unerringly finds its way to beaches where foreign surfers congregate.

The Shari'a police continue to do their image — and Aceh's — no favors. In January, three officers were charged with raping a local 20-year-old student in their custody, prompting calls from rights activists for the force's disbandment. Even so, for most regional and long-haul tourists, Shari'a and its enforcers are not the barrier. Rather, it is a lack of even half-decent hotels outside Banda Aceh, and Jakarta's apparent reluctance to grant immigration officials in this once independence-minded province the right to issue visas on arrival, as Bali has done for many years. Solve such problems, and Aceh might one day attract visitors in the numbers it deserves.