Local groups and regents reject N. Sumatra governor’s plans for ‘halal tourism’ around Lake Toba

In recent years, the Indonesian government has been pushing to develop new tourist zones to attract foreign visitors to islands besides Bali. Many of the regions targeted for tourist development have decided to focus on promoting “halal tourism” to attract Muslim tourists from abroad, but, in some areas of the country, those plans have led to clashes with those who fear that halal tourism could lead to the erasure of local culture. 

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This issue has entered the spotlight once more in the area around Lake Toba in North Sumatra. Last month, North Sumatra Governor discussed his plans to develop halal tourism around the popular tourist destination. He said he was forming a team to accelerate the implementation of the plan and mentioned that one part of it was banning the slaughter of pigs anywhere within the area, saying that Muslims from Malaysia and Brunei wouldn’t come to mosques if they knew the non-halal animals had been killed in the same area.

That particular point has proven fairly controversial and has led to protests by a number of groups representing the region’s Batak communities. The Batak people predominately live in North Sumatra, which is home to about 5.7 million members of the ethnic group. Most Batak are Christian and pork makes up an important part of their cuisine. 

A student group calling themselves Lake Toba Lovers (PDT) held a demonstration yesterday in front of the office of the Lake Toba Implementing Authority (BPODT) in Medan in protest of the governor’s plans. They argued that the implementation of halal tourism around Lake Toba could cause conflict in the community.

“We really want clarification. What is his commitment, is the governor blind to the social and cultural conditions in the Lake Toba area that he launches this halal tourism plan?” PDT coordinator Rico Nainggolan said as quoted by Detik.

Rico said that the governor’s plans regarding pigs were particularly upsetting to the residents living around Lake Toba. “As we all know, these animals are very important to the customs of the people there,” he said, adding that the governor should instead focus on preventing Lake Toba from being harmed by pollution and environmental damage.

It is not only community groups protesting. At least two local regents have also voiced their rejection to the governor’s plan including Nikson Nababan, the head of North Sumatra’s North Tapanuli regency. Nikson argued that halal tourism should not be seen as a benchmark for success in developing tourism in the area. 

Related: Mount Rinjani park backs away from plan to separate male, female hikers in support of halal tourism

“Bali is a world-class tourism destination, and they don’t have halal tourism or non-halal tourism there. Local customs must be adhered to if that’s what is being sold to foreign tourists,” Nikson said yesterday as quoted by Tubas Media.

The leader of North Sumatra’s Samosir regency, Rapidin Simbolon, echoed Nikson’s sentiments in rejecting the governor’s halal tourism plans, saying they ran contrary to local culture and were a violation of the country’s founding principle of Pancasila, which promotes unity in diversity through respect for multiculturalism.

Responding to the controversy, Muchlis, the head of North Sumatra’s tourism office, said that fears that the development of halal tourism would create conflict with local culture were unfounded, saying it was simply about providing sufficient accommodations for Muslim tourists.

As to the matter of pork, Muchlis said that the sale and consumption of the non-halal meat would still be allowed in the area, just not the slaughtering of pigs. 

“Halal tourism and local wisdom can go hand in hand without eliminating or competing with each other. We don’t forbid (pork). Halal tourism is different from the concept of Islamic tourism,” Muchlis said yesterday as quoted by CNN Indonesia

The tourism board chief said that they would try to alleviate further misunderstandings about the plan by holding meetings with Lake Toba’s tourism office as well as related community groups.

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