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News Article

Trouble in paradise: is Sri Lankan tourism trampling on human rights?

Report highlights ethical concerns in post-conflict development

Sri Lanka, an island nation with enviable natural beauty and wildlife, suffered many years of ethnic conflict in which much of the island was off-limits to tourism. Since the end of the civil war, tourism has been booming as international visitors flock to this tropical holiday paradise. But a recent report from the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), Switzerland, “Dark Clouds over the Sunshine Paradise. Tourism and Human Rights in Sri Lanka", claims that tourism development is often at the expense of local communities, and that much of the new development is controlled by the armed forces. 

Sri Lanka has had more than its share of problems. It was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and for many years was racked by armed conflict which started in 1983 and continued intermittently until 2009. 

In 2008, the year before a ceasefire was announced, Sri Lanka registered around 440,000 international visitors; in 2013 the number reached almost 1.3 million, and in 2014 1.5 million people visited this holiday island in the Indian Ocean. The government tourism plan has a target of 2.5 million visitors by 2016. 

The previous Sri Lankan government, defeated in an election in January 2015, defined the tourism sector as the key industry to boost its economy in the wake of the civil war. The profits from tourism, according to the development strategy, are primarily intended to benefit the population. In order to make the development of new areas as socially and environmentally compatible as possible, the government’s “Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority” (SLTDA) introduced minimal development standards, which must be respected by all parties involved. Thus, before realising any major tourism project, environmental and social impact assessments have to be conducted. In a similar vein, the permanent overdevelopment of coastal areas was also prohibited. Yet the report written by Christine Plüss and Nina Sahdeva claims that these minimal standards have rarely been sufficiently taken into consideration – neither by the government, the investors nor the military. The same applies to the human rights that were incorporated into the constitution. 

Traditional fishermen – a must for the photo album of any Sri Lanka traveller – are being ousted from their traditional fishing sites for construction of new hotels and tourism complexes. New resorts deny hundreds of fishermen access to the sea. Mangrove forests protecting the coast against erosion as well as providing women and children with fishing grounds for shrimps and prawns are cut down to make way for tourism developments. Thus the livelihood of fishermen and their families is seriously threatened. In the new tourism zones, land is grabbed and the residents are resettled, more often than not with insufficient warning or compensation. 

 Only a few people in the environment of the new tourism resorts are able to make a living from the emergent tourism, claims the Swiss study. The majority of hotel employees are recruited from other Sri Lankan regions and local fishermen are hardly ever chosen as suppliers for the hotels. And the report suggests that some of the large military budget is invested in tourism with the army, navy and air force opening hotels all over the country and increasingly offering tourist activities. This deprives local populations of income, and the military is able to provide tourism packages at lower prices than the private sector because members of the armed forces working in tourism receive their salaries directly from the military department. 

To advance a reasonably controlled development of the island, the government has chosen four areas where tourism should be particularly promoted: Kuchchaveli, Passikudah, Kalpitiya and Dedduwa. The report by Pluss and Sahdeva, published on 1 March, focuses on the three regions of Kuchchaveli, Passikudah and Kalpitiya. It claims in all three regions the government’s minimal development standards have scarcely been observed. Environmental and social impact assessments take place only sporadically and little is known about the findings. The local population is not consulted on the planning of tourism projects, and there are no educational opportunities for the local population to cater to the needs of the hotels. Public facilities have had to make way for tourism projects. 

The report focuses on the Swiss and German tour operators offering holidays to Sri Lanka, and says that human rights violations occur both within and in the surrounding areas of three selected resorts offered by German and Swiss tour operators. It makes detailed recommendations for both governments and the tourism industry. Among the demands are that: 

  •          Travel agencies must not offer hotels that are built on grabbed land, that restrict the access of local fishermen to the sea, that discriminate against women and minorities and that forbid or restrict unionisation of employees.
  •          Travel agencies must not offer hotels which are managed by the military or which offer tourist activities provided by the military as long as it cannot be proven that this was not based on illegal land grabbing or other human rights abuses.
  •          Travel agencies must regularly monitor and ensure the exercise of due diligence concerning human rights throughout their entire value-added chain, including the hotels and other tourist activities that they offer, and guarantee that no human rights are abused through the activities of their suppliers and service providers.
  •          Travel agencies should introduce grievance mechanisms that are available to the affected population. Human rights violations in tourism must be counteracted through concrete means and abuses must be remedied. 

Available for download are a summary, and the full report, Dark Clouds over the Sunshine Paradise. Tourism and Human Rights in Sri Lanka. There is also a summary and commentary published by Tourism Watch.  

A selection of database records on tourism in Sri Lanka is listed below.

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 16 April 2015
  • Source
  • Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), Switzerland
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism