Sri Lanka recently received high praise from the writers of The Lonely Planet as a country they rate as Number One in a list of places which well reward visitors’ interest. Their views have been echoed by Hidden Travellers, a group of travel writers who aim to disclose the good as well as the bad features of the lands they visit.
Their findings, which are available on line, are admirably frank and balanced. They should be read by everyone involved in the hospitality industry and most especially by Government-controlled bodies such as the Tourist Board, Sri Lanka Railways, and the Ministry of Transport, whose activities bring them into close contact with visitors from abroad in ways, and at levels, often unknown to the managers of five star hotels and the visitors who have the means and good fortune to enjoy the luxuries provided by such hostelries.
Many Sri Lankans assume that Westerners who have money to spend on leisure travel, are wealthy. This, of course, is not the case. Not every visitor is well-heeled. Many are students travelling on strictly controlled budgets, so that they have to watch and account for every cent they spend. The more thoughtful and well-informed are not simply ‘out for a good time’ on our beaches and in our malls and restaurants, and they are perfectly aware that Sri Lanka is dependent on the ‘tourist dollar’ for her economic survival.
For tourism in this country to prosper, a balance has to be found that will provide visitors with comfortable, safe, and memorable experiences while at the same time allowing the locals they meet to earn a living and and make friends of these strangers, so that they will come again, and recommend our country to others. The latter is not easy for our people, who are (or used to be) traditionally reluctant to ‘push themselves forward’, and who indeed once considered such behaviour as contemptible and evidence of a lowly upbringing.
It’s hard for us, therefore, to sell ourselves and our assets to visitors without seeming ‘pushy’. But that, unfortunately, is what we are called upon to do by the tourism industry. It is obvious that we are not always very good at finding the balance, since ‘pushiness’, significantly, is at the top of the list of unpleasant characteristics that Hidden Travellers, a well-intentioned and perceptive set of observers, have recorded online as characteristic of the Sri Lankans they encountered in the course of their visit to our country.
Here are the problems identified by these and other visitors:
(1) They find people intrusive (‘pushy’), and inclined to pester them to go somewhere or buy something against their will.
(2) They have been annoyed, irritated, angered, and sometimes frightened by the treatment they have received from local Sri Lankans, mostly male.
(3) They have felt insecure, lacking adequate protection from local police when they have been in need of it.
(4) They have been victims of attempted robbery, three men trying to steal their money while they were trying to exchange it at a local ATM, another demanding that they give him the 100$ bill they wanted changed.
(5) They have been physically attacked, and even injured – a tourist had her hand scratched by a stilt fisherman at Koggala.
(6) They (women in particular) have been insulted and publicly humiliated by sexual innuendo and obscene language.
(7) They have been sexually harassed.
(8) The public toilets on trains are filthy and insanitary.
(9) Some male drivers seem to think they own the public roads by virtue of their nationality. “I am Sri Lankan. How dare you overrun me?”
(10) Hosts insist that tourists have all their meals at their place, and turn resentful or even aggressive if the guest has other ideas. Such hosts have been known to retaliate by turning off the internet, and ignoring their guests’ normal questions.
(11) They were over-charged at many homestays and hotels they patronized.
(12) “Where are you from?” This question is asked, not out of curiosity, but with the intention of finding out how much a visitor is worth to them.
(13) Tuk-tuk drivers intimidate tourists with violent and dramatic behaviour, yelling and cursing, pretending to become angry if negotiations aren’t going their way, leaving when asked a normal price, and even asking passengers to leave when they are in the middle of a public road.
(14) The stilt fishermen on the shore of Koggala aren’t actually fishing, they are waiting for tourists to take their picture, threatening to take their phones unless they are paid Rs. 500 – 1500.
(15) Sri Lankan men don’t seem to know how to treat women, objectifying them, harassing them, and insulting them by using language with sexual implications.
Wealthy and experienced travellers who place their travel arrangements in the hands of professional travel companies are not usually exposed to the problems outlined above. It’s the youthful and adventurous (often students), who are. But every tourist, wealthy or not, experienced or not, uses the internet. If they have something to complain of in the treatment they have received, they publish it to the world, often with illustrative photographs. Sri Lanka finds herself at the receiving end of bad publicity, and tourism suffers as a result.
It is obvious that the causes of these problems should be addressed immediately. Presuming that Sri Lankans (who are legendarily famous for their hospitality, and take pride in it) don’t actually want to insult and offend their visitors, I offer a list of possible causes:
(1) Cultural misunderstanding, caused by ignorance or prejudice on both sides
(2) Sexual repression of Sri Lankan males, the result of social conditioning
(3) Lack of rigorous training of local police personnel as regards their duty to the public
(4) Inadequate moral/ethical education in local schools
(5) Indulgence of masculine assumptions of superiority in homes by well-intentioned parents of Sri Lankan boys
(6) Inadequate enforcement by the Government of existing laws
(7) Poverty/financial need in Sri Lanka, leading to desperation, dishonesty, opportunism and readiness to steal.
(8) The local media often treats as entertainment instances of Sri Lankan politicians’ dishonesty and bad behaviour (especially their mistreatment of women). Regularly treated in our newspapers and on TV as high comedy, such ‘reporting’ suggests to uneducated readers (and most tuk-tuk drivers, for example, lack even a GCE qualification) that such activities are perfectly permissible, since they are practised by the ‘highest in the land’ without reproof or punishment.
(9) Indifference on the part of authority, poor health education in Sri Lankan homes, and sometimes even social shibboleths relating to caste or race (which make the proper care of toilet facilities the responsibility of ‘someone else’), combine to make train travel in Sri Lanka a nightmare for locals as well as well as for tourists.
Can anything be done by Government institutions to eliminate some, at least, of the above problems? Yes. Some of these can be achieved without financial cost or expenditure, with a stroke of a ministerial pen.
(1) Travel literature distributed by the Tourist Board could go beyond advertising the natural beauty of the island (which it already does very well) to disseminating advice to arriving visitors regarding the local environment, and/or local religious attitudes. Many visitors think it quite ok at present to buy ivory and tortoise-shell items, feathers of ‘exotic’ birds, and leopard skins, ignorant of the fact that these have been obtained from the destruction of endangered species; or to have themselves photographed sitting in the laps of statues of meditating Buddhas. To advise on such matters ahead of entry to Sri Lanka (e.g., in literature distributed at the airport) would prevent disappointment and avert local hostility. To encourage visitors to enjoy Sri Lanka’s seafood (crab, prawns and cuttle fish, for example) while avoiding lobster for the sake of the environment would cause no offence. On the contrary, well-intentioned and well-educated travellers (of whom we welcome a great many every year) would appreciate being enlisted in such a cause.
(2) The maintenance of clean lavatories on trains can be achieved by calling for tenders from the private sector. The organization of restaurant cars on trains has been handled well by private companies in the past.
(3) Women and Children Only carriages can be instituted in all trains.
(4) Since it was made abundantly clear to the nation and the world last year that our parliamentary representatives (of both sexes) cannot be trusted to conduct themselves with propriety in public, TV coverage of parliamentary proceedings should be halted immediately. Persons below an agreed age should not, for their own protection, be admitted to the public gallery. Politicians should be informed of this, every time it happens.
(5) Police should be given special training in duty of care: especially the care of women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and those suffering from trauma or harassment.
(6) All taxis and three-wheelers should be ordered to carry meters that are accurate and in working order. Drivers who violate this law should be filmed, and their ID cards photographed as a condition of license approval.
(7) The Education Department should make social training (including ethics, morality and the protection of women and children) part of the school curriculum
When they reveal what they liked about Sri Lanka, Hidden Travellers disclose a good deal about themselves, and about tourists in general. What do we learn about our country as others (visitors from elsewhere) experience it?
(1) It is visually beautiful
(2) It is unusually diverse
(3) It appears capable, to a degree unattained by other countries, of illustrating, encouraging, and promoting spirituality.
Many Sri Lankans are fully aware that we are fortunate in our birthplace, but we do not realize that some sensitive and intelligent visitors share our sense of wonder at the incredible (their word, not mine! – I would like to see superlatives such as ‘íncredible’, and ‘amazing’ which are in danger of becoming meaningless through overuse banned from the English language) things they encounter in Sri Lanka.
The phrases below are quoted from the Hidden Travellers’ essay, which lists and describes what they liked best about Sri Lanka: Its ‘mind-blowing heritage’, which includes ‘ancient ruins’, ‘unspoiled natural habitats’ and so ‘many species of endemic animals that we lost count of’ them. ‘Just staring at Sigiriya Rock or walking amongst ruins at Polonnaruwa,’ they write, ‘made us feel humble and small ‘. They claim to have felt and understood, while in Sri Lanka, what it is to experience ‘the incredible creations of man and God at the same time’.
And yet these are the same people who have been cheated, insulted, sexually humiliated, and frightened by Sri Lankans.
It seems to me that the task we must accept is to educate our visitors by educating ourselves.