Indonesia’s bid to lure more visitors by spreading halal tourism across the archipelago is facing a backlash, with a Christian celebration of pigs – forbidden for Muslims – the latest act of dissent.
The weekend festival-cum-protest in Sumatra, featuring pig racing, chubbiest hog contests and a porcine fashion show, comes as holiday hotspot Bali pushes back against rolling out more Muslim-friendly services on the Hindu island.
Critics say a government plan to cash in on halal tourism – part of a broader campaign to replicate Bali’s success nationwide – is another threat to minority rights in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
And critics have warned that the sprawling nation of 260 million – where nearly 90 percent of the population follows Islam – is taking hard-right turn with a conservative cleric now installed as vice-president and hardliners growing increasingly vocal in public life.
Indonesia’s reputation for tolerant Islam has been under fire for years.
Pushing halal tourism in areas with religious minorities – including Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — may do more harm than good, warned Ali Munhanif, an expert on political Islam at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta.
“The phenomenon signals an effort to institutionalise conservatism,” he said.
“Bali successfully manages its tourism sector without using a ‘Hindu’ label.
But advocates say halal tourism is misunderstood.
“There is a public misperception that halal tourism is Islamisation. That is wrong and it’s why some people overreact to the concept,” said Zainut Tauhid, Indonesia’s deputy minister of religious affairs.
“It is about providing necessary facilities for Muslim visitors such as prayer rooms. So it is facilitation rather than Islamisation.”
That view isn’t shared by some around Lake Toba, a scenic crater lake in Sumatra where the weekend pig festival was held.
Most locals are Batak, a Christian ethnic group that puts pigs at the centre of its traditional cuisine, with hog farming a key source of income.
Last month, provincial governor Edy Rahmayadi raised eyebrows when said he wanted to boost tourism with Islam-friendly facilities and services.
That included opening more halal restaurants and mosques, as well as banning the public slaughter of hogs, with the governor saying the practice could turn off Muslim visitors.
“This idea to bring in halal tourism is going to divide people,” festival organiser Togu Simorangkir told media.
“It’s a step back for tourism here,” he added.
About 1,000 people dropped by the event, including children who scribbled in pig-themed colouring books and adults watching as hogs were judged on their plump proportions.
“Batak culture is particularly known for its pigs,” said higher schooler Edo Sianturi.
“We’ve been raising them and earning a living from them for generations.”
Visitor Sabrina Singarimbun, a Muslim student in a head-covering hijab, was keen to see which best-dressed pig would win the festival’s fashion contest.
“I disagree with the (halal tourism) idea because it’s Batak culture here and most people aren’t Muslim,” she said.
Elsewhere, halal tourism is often seen as a lucrative business opportunity.
Thailand and Taiwan are among regional destinations tapping the halal tourism sector, which a 2017 study found will be worth some $300 billion annually.
This month, Indonesia ushered in new halal labelling rules for consumer products and services, as the government eyes travellers from other Islamic nations to rev up its much-touted “10 New Balis” tourism push, which includes Lake Toba.
But efforts to cater to Muslim visitors has drawn controversy.
This summer, officials in Lombok – an island next to Bali that has many Muslim-friendly services — quickly rolled back plans to set up separate camping areas for male and female hikers in Mount Rinjani National Park after a public backlash.
Two restaurants in Makassar on Sulawesi island, meanwhile, were forced to close after a Muslim group in July complained that the smell of their pork dishes was wafting over to nearby mosques and halal restaurants.
Back in North Sumatra, the governor’s spokesman Muhammad Ikhsan said his boss was misunderstood.
“He just wants to make Lake Toba a friendly place for Muslim visitors,” Ikhsan said, adding that he hoped it would also curtail the environmental impact of pig farming.
“What we want is just to make things organised, not to make it a halal place.”