Tourism mega-development in Sri Lanka results in human rights violations

Sri Lanka has an increasing number of tourist arrivals which could be very good for the development of the island. Therefore, of course, the local communities should benefit from the tourism above all. This does not seem to be always happening.

The Society for Threatened People (STP) Switzerland, together with the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), published a report called “Dark Clouds over the Sunshine Paradise” in February 2015[1], which shows that tourism development in Sri Lanka results in human rights violations. The report claims that for tourism projects, land has been grabbed and fishing communities have lost their livelihood. It also shows clearly that the local communities hardly profit at all from the increasing number of tourists, which the following examples clearly show.

Luxury holidays in the High Security Zone (HSZ)

Kankesanthurai is part of the High Security Zone (HSZ) on the Jaffna peninsula. It used to be a vibrant town before 1990 when all the Tamil villagers were evicted by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). The SLA destroyed all the houses and even temples in this area. The evicted people have now been living either in camps, in relatives’ houses or abroad for 25 years. However, in Kankesanthurai the SLA runs a hotel which was widely extended from a former Government Rest House. They used material from the destroyed houses to construct the resort. The “Thalsevana Holiday Resort” offers the customer everything from cheap guest rooms to luxurious hotel rooms. The guests (who are mostly Singhalese visiting the North after the end of the war) can go swimming and sun bathing at the beautiful beach, ride a bicycle or hike within the HSZ and even rent old timer cars for a joyride. The employees are all soldiers and get their salaries directly from the Defence Ministry. They therefore, deprive the local communities of an important income source.

In fact, many hotels, restaurants, boutiques and even whale watching tours are run by the military in Sri Lanka. According to a high-ranking military officer, in the next few years 150 hotels will be run by the military. This would be a bad sign for the local communities all over the island. Local people also face many problems due to private sector resorts, like we see in Kuchchaveli.

Eco holidays on captured land

Kuchchaveli is a small fishing village in the north-east of Sri Lanka. The people are mostly engaged in fishing and agriculture. At the end of the war, a lot of land in Kuchchaveli was occupied by the Sri Lankan Navy. The villagers had to leave their own homes, their farms, and their fishing areas. After the end of the war they wanted to return to their land but the Navy did not leave. The Government had other plans for the land.

On one part of the land, the company Raigam started a saltern, which has polluted the local lagoon, where fishermen are not able to catch fish anymore. On the other part of the land, a board was put up by the Navy which claimed that this area is a tourism zone. The local community is not allowed to enter this area. Even though this used to be the place where they lived and worked. Fishing is completely prohibited in the whole zone. When some villagers sent a petition to the local authorities, they were told that all the documents, which would have proved the ownership, were destroyed during the war.

In 2013, Uga Escapes opened the eco-friendly “Jungle Beach Resort” in this tourism zone on captured land. The resort seems to have some connection to the former regime. The former president Mahinda Rajapaksa planted a tree inside the premises of the hotel and it was declared open by his brother Basil Rajapaksa. “The Jungle Beach Resort” is very beautiful. The cabanas are built within mangroves and the beach might be one of the most beautiful in Sri Lanka. Every wish of tourists will be fulfilled. It claims to be eco-friendly, but it is certainly not people friendly. The local community not only hardly benefit at all from this resort but it was also built on their land.

A Bay only for tourists, not for fishermen

In Passikudah the local community also face enormous problems because of the tourism development. Passikudah is a beautiful bay close to Batticoala. It had been a famous tourist spot for Sri Lankans in the 1970s. During the war, all of the hotels were shut down. Soon after the end of the war, Passikudah was declared as a tourism zone and a lot of hotels were constructed. Now around 14 luxury resorts exist on the bay.

The villagers in this area are mostly fishermen and their families. They have been fishing in this area for generations. After the hotels were built most of them had to leave their work places. The boat fishermen were sent to a very small place in the corner of the bay, which they also might have to leave soon. They are under a big risk of losing their livelihood. Beach Seine fishing was prohibited in the whole bay so a lot of people have lost their livelihood already. The situation is especially difficult for women. They cannot support their husband in fishing activities and so they get completely marginalized. Also the whole family income sinks when they cannot reach the anchorage point and produce processed fish like the delicious dry-fish.

These people also cannot find any jobs in the tourism industry and because the hotels do not even buy their fish, they are not benefitting at all from tourism. It is a big threat to their livelihood.

Leasing out the beautiful islands of Kalpitiya

Also in Kalpitiya, another of the tourism zones declared by the former regime, the local communities face similar problems. Kalpitiya at the Puttalam lagoon have many islands, where fisher communities have lived for generations. After the civil war ended they have faced a new threat from investors which want to build hotels on these islands. Previously, they did not need any documents to use the islands for living and working so they had no interest in demanding deeds from the authorities. Now they are very scared that they will lose their land where they have been living for generations. Two islands have already been leased out to foreign companies so far. On the island of Ippanthivu an Indian investor started to build a big resort and on Vellai a Swiss-Maldivian Joint Venture wants to build a luxury hotel. These are beautiful islands and the surrounding lagoon is famous for their delicious prawns. The people are scared that they will lose their livelihood due to the tourism projects.

Another example shows that, even with documents proving ownership, land can be grabbed for the construction of hotels. On the island of Mohothuwarama the “Dutch Bay Resort” is offering several cabanas to guests. It is a very beautiful place surrounded by mangroves. However, during the construction, Senul Abdeen Saleema realized that they started building cabanas on a part of her land. She was very courageous and filed a court-case which she finally has won. The hotel owner had to pay some compensation, but her land was still lost. Now she is living on the mainland of Kalpitiya because, due to the hotel construction it was impossible for her to reach her own land.

The local people of these islands now need all the support they can get so that they do not lose their livelihood and their land with or with documents proving the ownership.

Taking action with the local communities

After publishing the report on tourism and human rights the NAFSO and STP together organized workshops for the affected local communities in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Puttalam. In all the workshops the attendees were very engaged and discussed a lot of different issues. They were very interested in the report and realized that what is happening to them due to the tourist projects is wrong . In every workshop the people even explained other problems they face because of the tourism development.

The workshops in Puttalam and Trincomalee were very well attended. In Batticaloa and Jaffna they were rather poorly attended. This might have a connection with the security threats these communities face. In Jaffna some of the participants were talking about their original land the first time openly after being suppressed for years. The organisers and participants were even able to draw a map of Kankesanthurai. In Batticaloa the workshop was disturbed by informants of the CID. About ten people came to the guesthouse where the workshop was held. Mostly they were just watching from outside but four of them came inside the premises and asked the hotel owner on the pretext of booking a room what kind of meeting was taking place. One of these informants secretly took a picture of the attendants. As one member of the NAFSO team saw him taking a picture, he made a photo of them so one of them got very angry and shouted that he will kick him.

Round Table Dialogue

On the 9th June the STP and NAFSO tried to bring all stakeholders from the four above mentioned regions to a round table dialogue. They invited representatives of all four local communities to explain their situation to the hoteliers and responsible authorities. Unfortunately the Tourism Ministry and the Board of Investment (BOI), who are responsible for the tourism zones did not send any representatives. No-one from the Tourism Ministry even responded to any of the letters and e-mails we send them. A NAFSO team member even went personally to their office to invite them. The At a meeting with a STP researcher, the BOI promised that they would sent somebody but they did not. This is very unfortunate because they could have met a lot of stakeholders from the tourism zones. It seems that they are still not open to a dialogue. But four hotel representatives were present as well as an advisor to the Fisheries Ministry.

After launching the Singhalese translation of the report “Dark Cloud over the Sunshine Paradise” the Fisheries Ministry and the Hoteliers had the opportunity to respond to the findings of the report. Then the local communities presented their cases. After that a very engaging discussion began, mostly between the local communities and the hoteliers. The discussion was very fruitful and even hoteliers and the Fisheries Ministry understand that the local community has to benefit from tourism and that human rights also need to be respected in the tourism development. The hope is very great that the situation for the local communities in tourist areas will improve and there will be a peaceful co-existence between fishing communities and tourism.

[1] See:

Workshop Kalpitiya
Workshop Jaffna
Workshop Batticaloa
Workshop Trincomalee
Board declaring the Tourism Zone in Kuchchaveli
Jungle Beach Resort in Kuchchaveli
Luxury Room in Thalsevana Holiday Resort
Fishing community in Ippanthivu (Kalpitiya)
Round Table Colombo