Is Sri Lankan Tourism Safe?
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.
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.
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.