Sri Lanka’s new winners in the tourism game

Sri Lanka's new winners in the tourism game

I was recently invited to visit Sri Lanka by NAFSO, an association of the fisher folk in Sri Lanka, and the Society for Threatened People, a Swiss based human rights organisation, in order to share our experiences of facilitating community tourism in India and to do a feasibility study of developing such programmes in Sri Lanka.

In the recent past there has been too much media reporting and hype around Sri Lankan tourism. Many of these reports praise tourism development in Sri Lanka. For example, ‘Malayala Manorama’, one of the leading vernacular newspapers of my own state, Kerala, carried an article on Sri Lankan Tourism last year. The article praised the Sri Lankan model of tourism development and promotion, and even suggested that Sri Lankan tourism is a model which Kerala Tourism should follow.

While in Sri Lanka I travelled to tourism zones, meeting local communities to find out what tourism development means to them. Now I am convinced that the ‘Malayala Manorama’ article was a classic example of one sided journalism.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the government established buffer zones in the coastal areas. They forced the people who had lived on this land, sometimes for generations, to leave these buffer zones in the interests of their safety and environment conservation. But while the original coastal residents were forced to relocate, the construction of hotels and tourist resorts in the buffer zones was approved and none of the safety and environment conservation considerations were applied.

Land grabbing is very common here. Powerful politicians have already acquired land forcefully (especially during the regime of former President Mahinda Rajapakse) and constructed huge hotels and resorts.

Take Pasikudah, a beautiful beach located in Batticaloa district on Sri Lanka’s east coast. Prior to 1983 Pasikudah was a popular tourist attraction. At that time, the region offered three hotels with a total of 171 rooms. After the outbreak of civil war in 1983, tourism completely collapsed in the region. When the war ended in 2009, this place was again promoted and attracted huge investment.

Today Paksikudah is advertised by a hotelier on his web site as a relaxing paradise for high dollar tourists, but this is no more a relaxing beach for fisher folk. Their access to the beach is completely denied and they are not allowed to park their boats, nets and other fishing equipment on the beach, thus massively affecting their way of life. They are now forced to walk up to 5 kilometres to reach the only available mooring. Over 300 fishermen have been forced to share an increasingly small section of the 5km long, 14 hectare section of beach. They are now restricted to a 300m long section that is overcrowded with fishermen.

A fishery centre had to make way for hotels and big resorts. Hence, the fishermen have not only lost the storage facilities for their nets and equipment, but also for the refrigeration of their catch, thus forcing them to sell it at lower prices.

Some local fisher folk pointed out to us that tourism in the past (prior to 1983) benefited the local population more due to the involvement of small and medium businesses. But the current invasion of big players with huge investments limits and reduces the scope of local benefits from tourism.

I also visited Kuchchaveli (Trincomalee) and few other villages where the Sri Lankan Tourist Board is developing Special Tourism Zones. Here the government displaced Muslim fisher folk during the war and has now handed over the land to tourism investors. The fisher folk are not allowed to park their boats, nets and other fishing equipment. One Russian investor here is using prisoners as cheap labour to develop their infrastructure!!!

Another resort was developed in an area where 171 Muslim families were displaced during the war. Now the military have handed over this land to tourism investors and announced a Special Tourism Zone. The community is still living in a pathetic situation without land and other amenities. When community members protested to claim back land, the authorities responded that the revenue office was bombed during the war so there were no land titles available to prove that community own this land!!! This ‘eco’ resort is built in an area with thick mangrove forest (a natural barrier during a tsunami) but the forest was destroyed to construct ‘ecologically friendly’ cottages. They still claim that this is an eco tourism project!!!! The same resort is also claiming that they are socially responsible because they built a water tank for the school there!!!!

So – our experience from the ground is that the Sri Lankan tourism model is a wrong model. It tells us that a one sided and unsustainable development is taking place here with violations of serious human and other rights.

Tourists travelling to Sri Lanka should know that they might unintentionally be supporting businesses linked to war crimes and human rights violations. Tour operators should not offer hotels or tourist attractions run by the armed forces if it cannot be proven that their ownership is not based on land grabbing or other human rights abuses. Instead, they should go for alternatives such as community owned home stays, and family run businesses.

Further information:

Sumesh Mangalasseri is a sustainable tourism campaigner and researcher, currently the director of KABANI – the other direction, a nonprofit campaign organization in India. He is also the Chairman and Managing director of KABANI – Tourism Services (P) ltd, based in Kerala, India

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