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Dealing with the tourism fallout


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After the assault and alleged sexual assault on four young Dutch tourists by local ‘beach boys’ in Mirissa as well as the assault on four Israeli tourists in Midigama, authorities have sprung into action to ensure that more of these horrific incidents do not continue to taint the tourism industry of an island nation that relies so heavily on its revenue.

Nine suspects have now been arrested over the Mirissa incident while a further four have been apprehended in connection with the Midigama assault. Concerns have been raised that these suspects could be members of a larger mafia operating along the southern beaches, backed by local politicians. The establishment in which the Mirissa assault took place has been ordered to shut down as it was operating its bar without a valid liquor license.

This week, Southern Development and Youth Affairs Minister Sagala Ratnayake directed all hotel and restaurant owners in the Southern Province to strictly adhere to the registration process of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).

Under this new regulation, all hotels, restaurants, eateries, liquor shops, surf shops, home stay units, and other services related to tourism must register with the SLTDA. He also directed officials to enforce excise regulations strictly and clamp down on events operating loud speakers to prevent noise pollution.

A committee of stakeholders will also be set up, together with Government institutions, to uplift the tourism sector in the province, which will be headed by the Southern Development Board.

Meanwhile, the Police have identified 20 highly touristic areas in the south in which to establish Tourist Police Units with at least 15 officers assigned to each unit.

Sri Lanka’s post-war economy has depended heavily on the tourism sector with growth numbers propelling the industry from just a few million dollars in the war years to one that is worth about $ 3 billion in 2017. In March, the sector grew by 24% compared to the same month last year, prompting the Tourism Minister John Amaratunga to increase the tourist arrival target from 2.5 million to three million for 2018.

Already this year, the industry has faced tough challenges with the communal violence in the country as well as the social media ban by the Government. Though the numbers in March didn’t see a significant fall, it is foolish to think that direct attacks on tourists will not be viewed more seriously by the country’s visitors and their governments.

Female tourists in particular face high levels of harassment in Sri Lanka and the number of reports and coverage is increasing at an alarming pace. Threats of rape and assault have been reported widely as the chauvinistic beach boy culture, buoyed by its political connections, is allowed to run rampant in these areas. Residents in the area have revealed that these incidents are more common than reported, as tourists are not keen on dealing with local authorities or getting into drawn-out legal proceedings against locals or local establishments.

The tourism industry functions on reputation and Sri Lanka’s status in the world will fast deteriorate if its culture of patriarchy and impunity remains unchecked. Strong warnings to officials of growing dangers to female travellers are increasing and the situation is only going to get worse as more incidents are reported.

Tourist safety must be the bottom line when addressing these problems. It is imperative now that the Government along with the stakeholders take full account of the situation and adopt a stern stance to mitigate the fallout and ensure there is no space for these incidents in the industry.


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