After 30 years of isolation and conflict, Aceh is opening its doors to tourists, offering itself as a unique destination for Southeast Asian Muslims.
With its insurgency and tsunami behind it, Aceh is ready for visitors, officials said as they unveiled plans for “Visit Aceh 2013” year at a recent event in Jakarta.
Sharia law, which governs the westernmost Indonesian province, should not be an impediment to visitors, and in fact may be a big tourist draw, Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah said.
“The launch of ‘Visit Aceh 2013’ will disseminate information that Aceh is ready to receive tourists, both foreign and domestic,” he told a November 11th event at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Jakarta.
“Tourists can experience the diversity of marine life and tropical forests. In addition, Sharia law in Aceh can make the region become one of the biggest religious destinations in Southeast Asia,” Zaini said.
The region has largely been cleaned up from the 2004 tsunami that killed 250,000 people and swept away whole neighbourhoods, and now has a Tsunami Museum commemorating the catastrophe, he said.
“We continue to build infrastructure and help the tsunami victims in the region. The tsunami has left many reminders of what happened in 2004,” he said.
“Even though Aceh was frightening in the past due to the negative report of a terrorism training camp, it is now secure, and we promise comfort and safety. Aceh is safe and convenient for tourists. We want to showcase our art and cultural heritage again,” he stressed.
The special region (daerah istimewa) on the northern tip of Sumatra has a unique and proud history as the place where Islam first took hold in Southeast Asia, a wealth of culinary specialties, and unique traditional dances like Saman and Seudati.
“The tourism sector is now promising. Aceh has a lot of natural resources and unique character, which can support its economy. Tourism can generate revenue for Acehnese,” Deputy Minister of Tourism Sapta Nirwandar said.
“I am optimistic that 2013 will be a good year for tourism in Aceh,” he added.
Travelers can receive a guided tour for one week at no cost as part of the tourism promotion programme, according to Adami Umar, the head of the provincial Department of Culture and Tourism.
“Starting January 1, 2013, tourists will be welcomed at the airport and our tour guides will take them around city of Aceh for a week for free,” he said.
Understanding Sharia law
Tourists need not worry about complying with Sharia law during their visit to Aceh; however, they will be given a briefing upon arrival so they can understand it, officials said.
“About Sharia Law in Aceh, there should be no worries for tourists who come. They have their own religions, and we are also religious. So the same – we both appreciate each other,” Zaini said.
“Aceh is friendly not only with Islamic countries, but also with non-Islamic countries. So we are friends with all countries,” he added.
Contacted in Aceh by phone, the chairman of the Consultative Assembly of Ulema, Sham Mohammed Gazali, said that foreigners visiting Aceh will receive special guidance so they will understand Acehnese culture and regulations.
“I emphasise that Sharia law applies only to Acehnese. So, there is no penalty for people outside Aceh,” he said.
Other visitors will come to Aceh precisely because of its Muslim traditions, said Jasman Marufsaid, a member of the Aceh governor’s staff. It is a tradition for Acehnese to invite Southeast Asian Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, he noted.
“During the fasting month, many Malaysians travel to Aceh. The Islamic tradition in Aceh has become a tourist attraction,” he said.