Complexities of locals’ attitudes toward tourism development as a means for poverty reduction: the case of Sharia Aceh
The province of Aceh, Indonesia, is a unique region that holds significant Islamic historical and cultural value. Aceh has been sporadically embroiled in armed conflict between the Indonesian central government and Acehnese political factions that demanded Aceh should be recognized as an autonomous region, if not offered independence from Indonesia. This conflict has undermined income levels and increased poverty rates in Aceh compared to other provinces in Indonesia. A brief exacerbation of conflict following the fall of Suharto’s New Order government was abruptly halted by the 2004 Sumatra Andaman earthquake and resulting tsunami, which devastated the province. The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Indonesian central government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has resulted not only in cessation of armed conflict, but also in a renaissance of economic development in Aceh. One major development is the introduction of tourism as a potential strategy for economic growth.
Tourism is promoted as a poverty reduction strategy by the United Nations, World Bank and other international organizations, due to its reliance on numerous small operators, thus increasing wealth penetration and the economic multiplier of tourism revenues, as well as sustainable tourism opportunities. What is rarely discussed in the literature however, is the community’s understanding of the concept of tourism, and the impact of tourism on community values, norms, and practices. This research project focuses on how a predominately Muslim community view towards tourism, including their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages, and describes the ‘sustainable livelihood’ framework as a useful tool in assessing the contribution of tourism development. The research draws upon the results of five focus group interviews, which were used to gather general opinions and information from community members about their understanding of tourism as a concept and its capacity to reduce poverty levels. It then uses targeted interviews of participants in local communities in Aceh to gather more specific information about tourism practices.
The findings of this research indicate Acehnese community members are generally supportive of tourism, but have some reservations regarding its potential application in poverty reduction. Many Muslim Acehnese emphasised the importance of cultural preservation in the application of any tourist strategy, and expressed concerns about a potential clash between Aceh’s Muslim culture and the expectations of Western visitors. Another concern was the role of small and micro enterprise in the development of tourism strategies, and their possible exclusion from the marketplace, if large-scale tourism development takes place. They also highlighted the lack of general community involvement in developing tourism activities and frameworks, which have not taken into account local priorities.
Despite these concerns, the participants were generally optimistic about the role of tourism in Aceh’s economy. Recommendations outlined in this paper include the development of local educational and vocational training to support the tourism industry, and the introduction of a tourism employment agency that small tourism operators and service providers could use in order to mitigate logistical problems caused by relying on the lowest-paid workers. These recommendations are further developed during the analysis of the findings, and a concise set of recommendations are offered to Indonesian policymakers to formulate an effective tourism-based strategy for Aceh. The research also identifies some potential areas for supplementary research in the province as well as general questions that remain unanswered regarding the role of tourism in poverty reduction.