Living among the locals

The paradoxes of tourism in Sri Lanka

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Being an essential element of tourism, the sector’s workers are the link representing Sri Lanka to the foreign visitors.

Because of the key role that tourism plays in the island nation, these workers have become a representative of an era of change that dawned on the island shortly after the 2004 tsunami and exponentially grew following the end of the ethnic conflict in 2009.

While being a critical element of the country’s economy, locals working in the tourism sector have been given a front seat to observe the wonder world of tourism as well as the fast changing local culture.

Staunch believers

In Romesh Gunesekera’s Noon Tide Toll, a novel about the tourism sector, the main character is a van driver called Vasantha who remains a passive observer throughout as the tourists’ behaviour ranges, in his view, from admirable to appalling. His character is a realistic depiction of many workers in the island’s tourism sector, holding many reservations about the tourists yet never saying a word in fear of sabotaging what could potentially become a lucrative deal.

Being one of the foreign exchange earners to the national income, the side effects of tourism are inconceivable to its many beneficiaries around the country. Similar to Vasantha, who was lured into the lucrative sector, Kandambi Ganewathage Sarath, a tourist guide in the district of Matara, turned to tourism at a time when Sri Lanka was transforming beyond recognition, he told me.

Being a strong believer in what he perceives is a robust tourism sector, he thinks that growth in tourism led to the development of the construction sector, changing entire villages and towns. Large buildings are erected day by day, offering a firm solution to the unemployment problem in Sri Lanka, he confirmed.

Shoved into tourism

Like others in the sector, Sarath’s life prior to tourism was entirely different. Tucked away in his small village in Kamburupitiya, Matara, he had very little contact with foreigners. In fact, before he earns his tourist guide license in 2005, he was a planter who happily grew paddy coconut as well as other spices for his own consumption.

“I was so happy seeing the yield. After the so-called modern development, the revenue I gained from it was not enough. I turned to seek a profession,” he recalled, reflecting his contradictory views regarding the urban development of the island nation.

Later, when Sarath became employed as an assistant storekeeper in a Japanese construction firm, he got acquainted with foreigners and heard of the fortunes he can potentially make out of tourism.

Sarath was not the only one whose work got impacted by the emergence of tourism in Sri Lanka. The development of the sector marked the disappearance of many traditional professions. Across the South Coast, interest in traditional industries is declining and sons of fishermen and paddy farmers have replaced their inherited professions with jobs in hospitality and tourism.

Ancient versus modern

Despite him being an approved tourist guide, Sarath has not metamorphosed out of the old ways of the Sri Lanka that he once knew. In line with the Sinhalese Buddhist doctrine of his forefathers, he has been practicing vegetarianism for many years, consistently refraining from Arack consumption, a popular temptation for many Sri Lankan men. These practices, he believes, keep fatal illnesses at bay.

“I appreciate ancient rituals because our ancestors were the people who laid the foundation to the development of all the modern technologies. Thus, I firmly believe in and practice ancient rituals. Just as I wake up early morning, I worship the sun and start performing my ritual duties. Nature also helps me when dusk approaches after which I worship the stars, the moon and other natural phenomena the same way our ancestors did,” he explained while slowly sipping his tea.

Eager to make a living of his profession, he does not seem too fussed about the paradox between his ancient ways of life and the sector that has embraced him after his coconut paddy failed to make yields. Workers of the tourism sector like him got accustomed to living in a myriad of contradictions.

Getting the license

Aware of their significant role, the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority has created a tough licensing system for the tourist guides, ensuring that the profession’s benchmarks are kept at the highest standards. Only those with a certain educational background can pass the test for the license.

Confronted with tourists with a superiority complex, coupled with the self-doubt inflicted on them by colonisation, which was followed by ethnic strife, concluding in poverty, tourist guides act as a thin curtain to cover what the country’s educated elite perceives to be imperfections.

Indeed, to the local boys of the popular South Coast, earning the tourist guide license is a distant dream. Even though they are the native inhabitants of some of the most popular tourist hubs on the island, the training and prerequisites of becoming a tourist guide are not made available to them.

Exclusivity

Flag bearers of the label “beach boys“, the local boys living in the popular tourist desinations make do with the resources given to them. After a decade of work in the tourism sector, Chandi, as he is famously known in the southern town of Mirissa, refuses to acknowledge the claims made against the beach boys who are accused of manipulating female tourists for money.

“Even I don’t understand who are the beach boys. If I live in the jungle then I am a jungle boy, right? I am from Mirissa, ne? It is a town that is right on the beach, so I hang around the beach most of the time. So then people start calling me a beach boy?” he told me.

Even though Chandi’s forefathers were paddy farmers like Sarath, he himself never worked in the field. By the time he reached his teens, young boys like him in Mirissa were regularly exposed to tourists. Having received no particular training in tourism, his first job was at the beach where foreigners had begun visiting in increasing numbers.

The 34-year-old would have been settled with a family and children of his own had he not been struggling with heroin addiction for the past 17 years, a chapter of his life which he claims to be over. A swagger in his walk and a look in his eyes that ranges from docile to fiery made me question his claims.

His own narrative of how he got involved with heroin, or “brown” as he likes to call it, often contradicts the various versions that circulate around his village.

According to him, bouts of depression as well as sporadic jail sentences over the years have led to his addiction. Meanwhile, village telltales tell of a day when young Chandi ran into a beautiful blond who is now a big shot in a London-based multinational corporation. Naïve and enthusiastic, he was a perfect catch for a drug smuggling deal that her brother was connected to, she thought.

Probably lured by the dream of visiting Europe, he proved to be an easy catch and got caught with his first attempt to enter the UK with the drugs, according to his previous employer, landing him in jail. Seventeen years down the line, Chandi is a much less gullible individual. But at what cost?

Mixed roles

Stripped away from the resources essential for him to strive in his environment, Chandi is similar to Sarath in that he now inhabits a world alien to him.

Had he been given the resources denied to him, Chandi could have grown more aware and more equipped to dealing with the perils of tourism at such a young age.

Meanwhile, Sarath was pushed into a profession that he perhaps did not wish but was qualified for, taking him away from his ideal life of nature-wroship at the coconut paddy fields.

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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