After the Civil War - Sri Lanka relies on Tourism

By Sumesh Mangalassery

The guns have fallen silent in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, but the deep wounds of conflict have not even begun to heal. The re-election of President Mahindra Rajapakse seems unlikely to move Sri Lanka to long term peace. His post war policies are deepening the division between various ethnic groups. There is no effort to make Sri Lanka a more inclusive state. Yet, tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka have increased significantly.

According to the tourism officials of the country, tourist arrivals grew by an impressive 50 percent or an increase to 160,000 from 106,000 visitors in the first quarter of 2010, compared to 2009. This year, the island expects over half a million tourist arrivals. However, the shrinking democracy under President Rajapakse prevents the majority from getting the benefits of this post war-economic development. Rather, this development is going to help mostly business interests.

In the rush of bringing new tourism projects, government started appropriating Tamil territories and bulldozing various Tamil landmarks. The authorities also proposed to replace the homes of the LTTE leaders with hotels and accommodation facilities. The Sri Lankan tourism industry creates new inequality and is further increasing the conflicts rather than bringing peace and cross-cultural understanding.

Many tourists hardly leave their hotels and meet the local people. They are not aware of Sri Lanka's poor human rights record. An estimated 300,000 Tamil civilians remain prisoners in internment camps run by the Singhalese government using military. The country is rated as the fourth most dangerous place in the world for journalists, even more dangerous than Afghanistan. Many journalists have been killed or jailed in this country.

New challenges

Government is announcing mega tourism projects and incentives to attract foreign investment. The tourism sector is earmarked as the most priority sector. 45 tourism zones have been introduced by Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. Most of the new projects are planned in the North East. An investor from South India enjoys a lot of support from the Sri Lankan government, such as subsidies, free land for lease for 35 years. "Sometimes you can get exemptions from certain laws and regulations", he says.

Sri Lanka is developing a highly centralized, investment-intensive mass tourism in a post-war situation. All these developments are not considering the environment. In many locations along the coast, mangrove forests have already been cleared over the last twenty years to make way for tourism. Various tourism policies mention environmental protection and coastal conservation, but in reality there is no weight on this. The livelihood options of traditional communities like fisher folk are at stake. In many tourism destinations, their access to the beach and adjacent land is denied by the hoteliers.

Lack of transparency and participation

Many tourism projects are proposed in ecologically sensitive areas and needs lot of resources which are essential for community livelihoods. There are no consultations with local communities and local participation in decision making, policy formulation and implementation is completely lacking. John Pilla Padmanabhan*, a fisherman from Kalpitiya, has no information about the proposed project there. His community lives in fear because they can be displaced at any time. Now the development of roads is taking place.

"In Batticaloa even ministers are allocating land to many people. No information is available and there is no transparency in these deals. They are taking advantage of the post-war situation for their business interests. We do not have any idea what is coming in and where. Everything is rumours. People cannot do anything against this", says Sunitha Kumari*, a social activist from Colombo. Nobody even wants to talk about these issues. People are really afraid of military and police actions, especially in the North-East.

Tourism fosters military

Out of every tourist dollar spent in the country, a significant portion goes to the island's military, further contributing to human rights violations. Though the civil war officially ended in May 2009, Sri Lanka's military spending still accounts for 15 percent of budget expenditure. The government is maintaining the huge military apparatus to strengthen the military occupation of the island's Tamil dominated districts of the north and the east. The defence spending for 2010 has been estimated to be $1.64 billion, only slightly less than the $1.65 billion in the previous year.

In the decades long civil war Sri Lanka lost an active civil society which can pressurize and act for better civil liberties and rights for its citizens. The recent change of Colombo's economic strategy to rely on Asian countries for arms, aid and investment made European intervention more difficult. But in the case of tourism, Sri Lanka is still relying on the western market.

*Names changed

Sumesh Mangalassery is a founder member of "KABANI - the other direction", a voluntary initiative in South India working on tourism issues.

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