Globalist Analysis

Dateline Sri Lanka: Tourism and Peacebuilding

How is tourism playing a key role in helping Sri Lanka rebuild from its civil war?

A beach on Sri Lanka's north coast


  • The crowded island state is in a time warp with bumpy roads and poor infrastructure, but it also lacks the crowded modern tourist resorts that have ruined some of the world's loveliest spots.
  • Sri Lanka's government is facing economic sanctions for a legacy of human rights abuses and possible war crimes — but its beaches are filling up.
  • Few studies on post-conflict societies mention the economic role of tourism, much less its power in peaceful reunification.
  • Sri Lanka's president vetoed "Sri Lanka — a small miracle" as the tourism project's slogan, perhaps because it was far too early to declare success.
  • If done properly, tourism could help unify Sri Lanka, whose war was driven by ethnic divisions.

GALLE, Sri Lanka — Why would anyone want to spend a vacation among the ghosts and relics of a 30-year war that introduced suicide bombing to the modern world and led to the disappearance and deaths of countless innocents?

As it turns out, thousands of tourists are returning to Sri Lanka. They are drawn to sea and sand, centuries-old Buddhist temples and wilderness reserves of elephants, leopards, monkeys and brilliantly colored birds — no matter what the recent history of this island.

Six months after the civil war ended, Sri Lanka's government is facing economic sanctions for a legacy of human rights abuses and possible war crimes — but the country’s beaches are filling up.

With U.S. foreign policy centered on South Asia due to the war in Afghanistan, the United States is examining how to improve relations with Sri Lanka without abandoning concern for human rights. And tourism could be one focus of the new approach. Indeed, Europe seems to be following just such a path.

On the one hand, the European Union threatens to end the generous trade preferences it has granted to the Sri Lankan garment industry to protest the government holding thousands of Tamil civilians in camps simply for sharing the same ethnicity as the rebel army that lost the war. On the other hand, German and British tour operators are booking hotel rooms here for the coming high season.

This summer, Sri Lanka barely won approval for a critical loan from the International Monetary Fund out of concern that the government is stoking animosities against the minority Tamils — rather than integrating them into society. Yet, no one is suggesting a ban on tourism here.
Instead, the government is making tourism a centerpiece of its post-war recovery strategy.

If done properly, tourism could help unify Sri Lanka, whose war was driven by ethnic divisions between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and minority Tamil Hindus.

Not surprisingly, members of the country's tourism industry are among the biggest promoters of tourism as a peace builder.

"This is the perfect opportunity — either we make the right tourism that lifts up all the communities or we ruin it — ruin the landscape, the beaches and the communities," said Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing, one of Sri Lanka's largest tourist conglomerates and a frequent guest at government councils drawing up tourism master plans.

However, what is required to get tourism right is open to debate — respect for the environment, culture, local communities and natural habitats.
No one doubts that it is one of Sri Lanka's best avenues for making money. "You can't imagine how hungry people are for money after 30 years of near-stagnation," said Mr. Cooray.

The stagnation is so deep that one of the country's largest sources of income is remittances sent home by Sri Lankans sent abroad for domestic or construction jobs. The reason is simple: There was no work at home.

The crowded island state is in a time warp, illustrated by the bumpy roads and poor infrastructure left over from the early 1980s, when the war began. However, that also means the country is without the crowded modern tourist resorts or ubiquitous chain stores that have ruined some of the world's loveliest spots.

"It is an unintended consequence that the lack of development during the war means we have pristine beaches. There is a whole generation of tourists who haven't visited Sri Lanka and will want to discover us — that we can be the next big thing," said Bernard Goonetilleke, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board and former ambassador to Washington.

Sri Lanka has named 2011 “The Year of the Tourist” with the goal of doubling the number of foreign tourists to one million — which, inadvertently, would address some of those human rights questions.

"What we believe is tourism done correctly serves the communities, all communities — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian — and everyone benefits," said Mr. Goonetilleke.

In that scenario, the government paves the highways, tourist dollars refurbish old hotels and temples and local artisans polish their nearly forgotten skills and sell tourists their crafts. But few studies on post-conflict societies mention the economic role of tourism, much less its power to play a part in peaceful reunification.

Guatemala is the rare example where boosting tourism was part of a post-conflict program. Officials canvassed the countryside asking people to name their region's best assets.

Soon enough, once-warring ethnic groups were talking to each other about the best way to bring tourists and their money to their communities. "It was almost an accident," said James Dion of the National Geographic, who helped coordinate the project. "Asking people what was so special about Guatemala brought them together."

Sri Lanka already has several tourism master plans — each shelved when the war took a turn for the worst — all promising to spread jobs across the country, create best practices for land use and wilderness protection, modernize infrastructure and support local culture.

If even half of these goals are pursued without prejudice, the plans would put minorities on the same footing as the Sinhalese.

But greed is as great a problem as war scars. Competition to make an easy fortune on the revival of Sri Lankan tourism is fierce. Land prices are skyrocketing — in some instances from $5 to $200,000 an acre, especially along the untouched eastern beaches that were nominally in rebel territory.

Rumors are rife of the elite grabbing up properties that could sell for millions. If history is a guide, local communities will lose to the elite, as happened when resort towns were being created in France in the late 19th century or in Bali in the 20th century.

The scramble is evident here in Sri Lanka's south, at the old colonial fort town of Galle, where tour operators are combing the coast road for decent hotel rooms to offer Europeans. Hotels are being modernized with air-conditioning, and they are generally updating their old beachcomber look.

After the tidal waves of the 2004 tsunami battered this coast, the local tourism industry pulled itself together. Business leaders first set up non-profit groups to rebuild traditional guest houses for religious pilgrims. Then, they set about rebuilding tourism itself, providing a model of sorts for the industry as a whole.

Geoffrey Dobbs, an Englishman whose restored colonial villas win international awards, helped set up some of the foundations and then founded the Galle Literary Festival in 2007 to lure more foreign tourists to this southern port city, even during the war. A Galle Film Festival opens this December.

"We started these foundations to rebuild, with the advantage that we are at Galle Fort, a UN World Heritage site," said Mr. Dobbs.

But this was a local endeavor in an area relatively unscathed by a war that was centered much further to the north. To pull off a unified tourism project on a national level to help all communities would require a singular effort that seems missing.

Posters along the highways celebrate the recent government military victory with portraits of Sri Lankan soldiers with the macho air of a Rambo movie. Tamil families in the war camps are unlikely to be released by the government's own deadline. Indeed, they've only recently been given temporary passes to visit friends outside the camps.

Recently, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse vetoed "Sri Lanka — a small miracle" as the tourism project's slogan, perhaps because it was far too early to declare success.

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