The Sunday Leader

Is Sri Lankan Tourism Safe?

By Indi Samarajiva

The animal assault on tourists in Tangalle is a tragedy, but not a trend. Sri Lanka remains a safe and friendly place to visit. The lawlessness and empowerment of government thugs, however, is a trend, just not one that usually affects foreigners. Now that it has, the government has to make a choice. They can either run a successful country or a successful mafia. Not both.

Personal Risk

Blue seas and white sands under threat Courtesy:

In purely rational terms, being a tourist in Sri Lanka is extraordinarily safe. There is no risk of terrorism or insurrection, uprisings do not shut down the airport (like Thailand) and fundamentalists do not shut down spas (like the Maldives). People are generally nice, police are generally helpful, and foreigners are generally spared from local trouble.
One spot of trouble, however, is endemic male prostitution along the southern coast. This becomes menacing when any foreign woman (or foreign looking woman) is assumed to be beach boy territory. If a Sri Lankan is dancing with or talking to a presumed client, that can lead to trouble, fast.
Another issue is that the police presence has not matched the rise in tourist arrivals. At one guesthouse in Weligama, an owner said that rooms had been broken into the night before and that the tourist police were slow and unresponsive. Thus, it is not enough to build more resorts and roads – the security apparatus and culture have to scale to match.

Reputational Risk

While the average risk is low, a few horrifying incidents can make for a drastically different perception of the country. Plane travel is far safer than, say, car travel, but a plane crash is so horrifying that many people are (somewhat irrationally) more afraid to fly. The risk of Islamic terrorism in the US and Europe is much less than the risk of home-grown terrorism, but incidents like 9/11 are so vivid that citizens and governments devote an insane amount of resources to a small threat.
In the same way, the assault – allegedly by a local government official – on tourists in Tangalle is so vivid and horrifying that it threatens the entire tourist industry. As Sri Lankan tourism expands, there will be more violent crime, but the case of a government supporter and his thugs brutally murdering a man and possibly raping a woman is so beyond the pale as to defy statistics. If the accused in any way get preferential treatment or, God forbid, get off, that injustice would compound the harm already done to Sri Lanka’s good name.
What makes this more than an isolated incident, however, is that thugs all over will harass people – especially women – and that many of them flash government IDs, mention government connections, or seem to be connected with the police. From the top down, Sri Lanka has a class of people above the law, ranging from MPs like Duminda Silva or Mervyn Silva to catchers on the street. When they oppress people internally it does not seem to bother the government much, but they, like any toxin, are not so easily contained. Now the goons the government has supported are now threatening a much bigger interest – in this case tourism. Something has got to give.

Sri Lanka’s Honor

Sri Lanka remains a fundamentally great destination, packing an incredible amount of wonder into one island. As annoying and violent as we are to each other, Sri Lankans are usually quite hospitable and kind. I have never met a tourist that does not love it here and want to come back.
On the whole, Sri Lanka has been getting the recognition it deserves post war – features in the New York Times, Conde Nast, National Geographic, et cetera. Peter Kuruvita is airing a Sri Lankan cooking show in Australia and the country is emerging as a desirable destination. The horrifying incident in Tangalle, however, is just the sort of bad press Sri Lanka does not need and – more importantly – a shocking human tragedy that transcends statistics.
As Sri Lanka opens up to the world, we have to realize that abuse of power and violence are not dirty secrets that can be swept under the claim of ‘sovereignty’. They inevitably spill out, affecting innocents and the honor of the nation as a whole. It is not just tourism that is at risk here, it is the honor of the entire country.
At some point the government’s headlong rush towards tourism and development will run into the contradiction of the effective mafia that has pervaded many levels of government and Sri Lankan culture. This makes it clear that it’s not enough to develop property and roads, the government itself has to develop into something equally civilized to match. In short, they cannot have their cake and rape it too.

5 Comments for “Is Sri Lankan Tourism Safe?”

  1. The Mighty Wombat

    Sri Lanka will never be safe again. When the LTTE was in power, it was safer, now it is a violent country with rapes carried out every day. SL is still a dangerous third world country to visit with no proper roads, sanitation or infrastructure. Tourism is dead after so many killings. I single handedly stopped 12 of my mates coming to this cave. My message is that it is a high risk country to visit. Thaliland, Bali, vietnam and Cambodia are so much more safer and cleaner for us foreigners.

    • jay

      Thanks for stopping 12 of your mates ,if you are this nasty ,we can imagine ,what your buddies would be like ,please stop if any of your buddies other than the above said 12 is interested in Coming to SL,That would be a great service to the country.Thank you.

  2. Expat Tourist

    Indi Samarajiva – you have assessed the situation very well and I appreciate yy comments that are true and alarming. Government thugs all over the island are running the tourism show and not the Ministry of Tourism and its four allied branches within one Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority. The culture in Sri Lanka is so crazy today that it is impossible to enjoy a holiday if you are not a friend of one of the Rajapaksa men or boys or their henchmen like Sajin Vaas Gunarawardena, Mervin Silva, and many others. This is so sad. When Premadasa was President, all astute politicians of good breeding were put aside. He called them drunkards, womanizers, and many other superlatives. Now it is an animal culture that exists. It is mafia controlled. As Gota says, “either you are with us or not”. These idiots do not realize that Sri Lanka is country that belongs to all its people. Not to one stupid family that runs it for a short time. It has become a dictatorship like mafia. UN must intervene on behalf of the masses who are kept silent by intimidation and thuggery.

  3. Michael

    You are kidding .. personally, the last attack / rape of the Russian woman is the 3rd I know ..

    1st One, another British couple, attacked and wife raped in Mt Lavinia

    2nd One, an American woman, molested ..

    both, the police reports just disappeared. with the family threatened, or the friends of the victims threatened to be locked up under anti terrorism law ..

    Not funny ..

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