Tourism has been one of the few, possibly the only, bright spot in Sri Lanka’s post-war economy. Buoyed by high growth numbers, the industry has grown from just a few million dollars in the war years to be worth about $ 3 billion dollars in 2017.
In March tourism grew by 24% compared to the same month last year, prompting Tourism Minister John Amaratunga to increase the target from 2.5 million to 3 million for 2018.
Obviously there are challenges to these ambitious targets. The 2.5 million target, which was set for 2017, was not met after weather woes, dengue and other challenges including an airport runway repair sapped the steam from arrivals. This year communal clashes in the Kandy District and a social media ban by the Government resulted in cancellations, though the March number indicates that the impact has not been as severe as first feared. However, if similar incidents continue to mushroom every few months they could have an accumulative impact, unless carefully handled by the Government and industry stakeholders.
Deeper issues such as the lack of a coordinated international marketing campaign and other challenges have also been given much discussion space. But there is one issue which has not received the attention that it deserves. Tourists, especially women, face high levels of harassment in Sri Lanka, which if the number of reports is anything to go by, is growing.
The details as listed in some reports are alarming. On the same day as the latest March tourist numbers were announced an English daily newspaper reported how two British women had been severely harassed in Mirissa while they were at a bar. A 19-year-old Dutch man was severely assaulted by several local men when he stepped into stop the local harassers. All three were beaten by locals and the women faced huge threats of rape.
The area residents had told reporters such incidents were common but few were reported to the police because the visitors did not want to face the hassle of dealing with local authorities. They would also be reluctant to get involved in drawn out legal proceedings to bring charges against establishments and locals. It is estimated that about 43% of tourists who come to Sri Lanka are women and increasing instances of sexual assault, harassment, rape and even murder will eventually have an impact on tourism numbers and Sri Lanka’s hospitality reputation in the world.
Given Sri Lanka’s deeply entrenched patriarchy and issues of impunity, it is not surprising that even a cursory internet search reveals dozens of alleged instances of rape and sexual harassment complaints as far back as 2010 peppered with warnings to officials of the growing dangers for female tourists. Travel advisories issued by countries contain warnings specifically for women. In January 2017 two off-duty policemen were arrested for harassing a Russian woman in Mount Lavinia showing the seriousness of the problem.
Tourism officials have so far largely stayed silent or engage in victim blaming but have done little to take serious action or make an effort to create widespread awareness of this issue. Obviously treatment of foreign women is a dimension of the larger issue of how Sri Lankan women are eve teased and harassed every day, even in public spaces such as transport, but nothing is done to prevent it. Stakeholders need to address this issue so that all women can feel safer travelling in Sri Lanka.