Indonesia’s reputation as a sun-drenched island paradise for tourists is well deserved. By and large, the country is as safe as anywhere else if visitors take appropriate precautions. While there are dangers both manmade and natural, wary travelers can easily enjoy blissful holidays without fear of accident or wrongdoing.
Indonesia is a developing country and approximately 42 percent of its population lives in poverty. Vacationers are typically much better off than the locals, which has a way of inspiring crimes of opportunity — mostly petty theft and low-level scams. That being said, it should be noted that Indonesia’s crime rate is lower than in a typical large, Western city. Crime is concentrated in urban areas, which is where travelers should make sure to keep careful track of their possessions.
Street crime is just one small part of the picture. The Indonesian government has a reputation for corruption, and has recently stepped up its anti-corruption efforts with a particular focus on local governments, the police, and the private sector. These efforts have a long way to go.
Police officers routinely supplement their salaries by accepting payments from motorists who violate traffic laws. They may ask for bribes, tips or "gifts". Pretending you do not understand may work, but being polite, smiling and asking for an official receipt for any 'fees' you are asked to pay will help avoid problems. The going rate for paying your way out of small offenses (not carrying your passport, minor or imaginary traffic violation, etc.) is Rp 50,000. It's common for police to initially demand silly amounts or threaten you with going to the station, but keep cool and they'll be more reasonable. Police sometimes charge victims to investigate crimes or to return recovered stolen property. This makes solving complex crimes challenging.
When police do take appropriate steps to address crime, they face significant hindrances. Police have limited capabilities in responding to criminal acts and other emergencies. They lack sufficient patrol vehicles to respond quickly on a consistent basis.
Terrorism and Political Strife
Indonesia has a number of provinces where separatist movements have resorted to armed struggles, notably Papua. In addition, strife between Muslims and Christians continues to occur in Maluku, Sulawesi and Kalimantan. Elections in Indonesia frequently involve rowdy demonstrations that have on occasion spiraled into violence, and the Indonesian military has also been known to employ violent measures to control or disperse protesting crowds.
While the great majority of civil strife in Indonesia is generally local, there have been terrorist bombings targeting Westerners in Bali and Jakarta, most notably the 2002 bombing in Kuta that killed 202 people, including 161 tourists. To minimize your risk, avoid any tourist-oriented nightclub or restaurant without strong security measures in place or where parking of cars and/or motorcycles in front of the club is permitted.
Crime and Tourism
The crime rate has increased significantly in recent years, but fortunately, it remains mostly non-violent and guns are rare. Theft of vehicles and non-violent residential break-ins do occur. Personal or snatch-and-grab robberies are the most common type of crime and have occurred regularly. Bags being snatched off the backs and shoulders of late-night scooter riders is a common occurrence. Pickpocketing affects both locals and visitors, with most pickpocketing occurring in crowded areas like restaurants and bars.
Credit and debit card crime continues to be a concern. The bulk of this type of crime involves dishonest employees of small businesses, shops, and restaurants who will either copy down the details of the credit/debit card or swipe it through a skimmer, enabling them to make fraudulent cards using valid credit card numbers. ATM skimmers (an attachment on a legitimate ATM) are also common. Use banks with indoor ATMs or 24 hour ATM security if you need to withdraw cash.
Organized crime is a problem and not much has been done to address it. Gangs are common and occasionally engage in violence or shootings. In many instances, the prosecution of individuals accused of these crimes is unsuccessful because of payoffs and bribes to corrupt government officials, including judges.
Crime always increases before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This is due to the pressure of providing gifts for family members and obtaining money for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, which is extremely important to the Muslim majority of Indonesians.
In Indonesia in general, there have been several incidents in which unsuspecting tourists were victims of drink spiking and robbed in their hotel rooms or en route. Be wary of strangers offering to buy drinks.
In both Lombok and Bali, exercise caution in the southern coastal areas after dark. This is when most robberies occur, both in populated areas (Bali Kuta, Canggu) and unpopulated areas (Kuta Lombok). Most upsettingly, Indonesia has a persistent problem with underage sex workers. Sex work is illegal in Indonesia, but widespread poverty and high numbers of tourists are all that’s needed for a thriving sex tourism industry. International law enforcement is working to reduce child exploitation.
Drugs and Alcohol
Indonesia has extremely harsh punishments for drug offenses but drugs are still widely available. Magic mushrooms are advertised openly in parts of Bali and Lombok, and hard drugs are common in the nightlife scene. Steer clear, no matter how tempting — entrapment and drug busts are common and you really, really don't want to get involved with the Indonesian justice system. Thanks to the anti-corruption drive, you cannot even count on being able to bribe your way out anymore. Persons violating Indonesian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.
Penalties for the possession, use, or trafficking illegal drugs are severe. Convicted offenders can expect lengthy prison sentences and hefty fines. The death sentence can be imposed in some cases of drug trafficking. In January 2013, a British citizen was sentenced to death for drug smuggling, and eight prisoners convicted of drug offenses were executed in early 2015.
Avoid accepting free mixed drinks and local alcohol in suspect bars or restaurants, as they can be spiked with ethanol or arak that contains a potential lethal alcohol content.
Natural Disasters and Emergencies
Indonesia is geographically located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and there are volcanic eruptions in the archipelago regularly, some of which can be significant. Indonesia contains the most volcanoes of any country in the world, with at least 76 that are believed to be active. Indonesia has deployed an effective volcano monitoring system, which has enabled the government to inform the population about potential eruptions and direct evacuations that prevent casualties.
There are also frequent earthquakes, occasional tsunamis, and other natural disasters, including seasonal flooding. During the rainy season (November-March), floods and mudslides wreak havoc in many areas. Every year, significant numbers of Indonesians are injured or displaced as a result of flooding and mudslides.
Realistically, there is little you can do to avoid these risks, but familiarize yourself with the warning signs and have an escape plan in case of emergency
Crocodiles and poisonous snakes are present throughout most of Indonesia, although only very common in a few areas. Komodo dragons can be lethal but are only found on Komodo and a few neighboring islands. Mosquitos are far more dangerous, so use repellent regularly and see a doctor immediately if you have any signs of dengue fever, malaria, zika, yellow fever, or ongoing unexplained sickness.
● Limit credit card use to major hotel chains, high-end restaurants, and well-known businesses. ● Keep an eye on laptops and cellphones in cafes or in public. ● Stay alert on public transportation (bus, train, boats). ● Do not accept drinks from strangers, as they may be laced with drugs. ● Choose your taxis carefully in cities and lock doors when inside. ● Do not place valuable items in checked baggage, as they may be stolen by baggage handlers. ● Do not leave valuable items in an empty hotel room, and use the hotel's safety deposit box instead of the in-room safe. ● Do not draw large amounts of cash from banks or ATMs. ● Remain aware of your surroundings at all times. ● Keep a low profile whenever possible. ● Limit displays of wealth, including wearing flashy jewelry. ● Avoid drugs and prostitution. ● Do not carry large amounts of cash and only carry credit cards you may need. ● Carry a photocopy of the bio page of your passport, and know the telephone number to the Embassy. ● Be suspicious of strangers approaching you. ● Keep accommodation windows and doors locked.
The Bottom Line
Indonesia has been and continues to be wracked by almost every pestilence known to man - earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, terrorism, civil strife, corruption, and crime make the headlines on a depressingly regular basis. Perspective is important here — Indonesia is a huge country and the culture and crime scene varies widely among the islands. With proper preparation and common sense, crime should not affect your ability to enjoy one of the most beautiful and friendly places on earth.
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