In Lonely Planet’s recent ‘Best in Travel’ awards, Sri Lanka has been ranked the top country for travel in 2019. The teardrop shaped island, just south of India, has a lot to offer tourists, including tropical beaches, delicious fresh seafood, wildlife safari parks as well a a chance to explore world heritage sites with global spiritual and cultural significance. However, many have raised concerns that Lonely Planet’s endorsement of Sri Lanka as a top tourist destination could be damaging to the country’s economy – especially in its current political climate.
Tracing back through history, the first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka were the Portuguese in 1505, colonising the island into seven different kingdoms. In 1638, when the Dutch won the Dutch-Portuguese war, Sri Lanka fell under Dutch rule. In 1802, the Dutch formally ceded rule of the island to Britain and it became a crown colony known as Ceylon. As nationalist movements began to grow in the early 20th century, Ceylon finally gained independence from colonial rule in 1948.
Throughout the 1950s, tensions between the majority Sinhalese and Tamil minority were growing. Sinhalese was made the only official language of the country, putting those who spoke Tamil at a strong disadvantage in every industry. In 1972, the name of the country was officially changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and a new constitution was created recognising Buddhism as the main religion. This caused more hostility within the largely Hindu Tamil community, and after several attempts at peaceful resistance to the government, a civil war broke out in 1983. An anti-government rebellion group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) fought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the island. The war tore the country apart, with a death count estimated at around 100,000 civilians following large scale massacres and bloodshed. In the midst of the war, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004, killing more than 35,000 and leaving many more homeless. In 2009, the Sri Lankan government formally declared to end the 25-year civil war after the army took control of the island and killed the leader of the LTTE.
Coverage of the Sri Lankan civil war by British media outlets were shown in documentaries such as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ by Channel 4 hosted by Jon Snow. The documentary, made at the end of the civil war, acknowledges that Sri Lanka’s public face of tourism, exotic beaches and international cricket hides a different reality. During the war, both government and tamil tiger rebels committed serious war crimes. The Tigers conscripted child soldiers and adopted suicide bombing, causing death, injury and brutal executions. When the government declared a no fire zone, Tamil tigers were shooting any civilians that tried to escape. There is also video evidence of sexual assault and murder of prisoners, which the Sri Lankan government claimed were fake. The president Mahinda Rajapaksa said ‘this would be a war till the very end’, as a number of air raids took to the North of the country, failing to distinguish between Tamil tigers and innocent Tamil civilians. Snow describes the war as unequal, since the Sri Lankan government had tacit support from most of the world’s powers, and was equipped with heavy artillery from China.
At the end of the war, Sri Lanka appeared to be at peace on the surface. Although most of the Tamil civilians were freed, the North of the country remained in a military clampdown where reports of rape and violence against civilians were common.
Recovering from the destructive effects of the tsunami and the war, Sri Lanka’s economy is steadily growing with exports of tea, rubber, coconuts and an expanding textiles industry.
In 2018, Sri Lanka has seen great strides of social progress with groups such as Women.lk and Not Your Nangi, actively empowering women and create spaces that are free of sexual harassment. This summer, the first openly queer play was performed in Colombo, as ‘The One Who Loves You So’ explored the story of a young gay man in a country that continues to criminalise same sex sexual relations. In September this year, Maya Arulpragasam, better known as the pop star M.I.A., released a documentary charting her rise to fame and the struggles she faced as a Tamil refugee. Being the daughter of a Tamil tiger liberation leader, she often flew Tamil tiger flags at the back of her stage of her concerts, and was demonized by the Western media as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. Her music is provocative, and often politically charged as her hit single ‘Paper Planes’ challenges the stereotype of what it means to be an immigrant. M.I.A. often speaks about her struggles with the feminist movement, saying that if the only feminism she is promised is the false promise of individual empowerment, then she cannot call herself a feminist. In her profile in New York times magazine, M.I.A. called out journalist Lynn Hirschberg for failing to include any mention of the Sri Lankan civil war, which M.I.A. was trying to draw attention to, but instead focused on the more glamorous aspects of her music career. M.I.A. was further enraged by the New York Times endorsing Sri Lanka as the top honeymoon destination just after the war had ended, resulting in her tweeting them a video of the war crimes.
On the 26th October, Sri Lanka was declared to be in a constitutional crisis when the United People’s Freedom Alliance, under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena, withdrew from the National unity government and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. In an attempt to replace the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sirisena’s decision has instigated political turmoil in the country. Many have argued that this move is unconstitutional, especially since Mahinda Rajapaksa was a controversial figure in the civil war, and is still suspect of corruption.
As 2018 draws to a close, whether tourism could benefit Sri Lanka in 2019 is a difficult question. Lonely planet cites better transport links, new hotels and a growing number of activities all as reasons to visit the country. Some conservationists have expressed concerns that sustainable tourism should ensure that tourists should make an investment in the country, rather than accommodating a large number of tourists. Large scale development has also been said to have negatively affected coastal areas and national parks, where waste not being disposed of properly has resulted in pollution. While tourism can be beneficial to local communities, it is important to have a long term vision and ensure that methods are sustainable.