Paradise Lost The hidden costs of tourism DEVELOPMENT in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a lot to offer the traveler; from mountains with breathtaking views to hidden beaches, temples and safari parks. And the world is taking notice. This year alone, New York Times named the East Coast in its list for '52 Places to go in 2016’.

Courtesy New York Times

Yet, all is not as it seems. Tourism is undoubtedly a huge contributor to Sri Lanka’s economy as it recovers from war. In fact, the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority estimates that over a million tourists arrived in Sri Lanka in 2016 alone (until August 2016). Tourism provides a source of income and livelihood to hundreds of locals, if done sustainably.

Unfortunately, however, this hasn’t always been the case. A closer investigation reveals that many of the same beautiful properties come at the cost of homes, lands and livelihoods. While hundreds of holidaymakers laze on the beach, others are struggling to eke out a living, just a few feet away. Groundviews would like to extend thanks to the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the many local organisers who facilitated both access and information for this piece. This list also draws from Sri Lanka Campaign’s comprehensive list on who to avoid in their ethical tourism campaign.

Ragamwela, Panama

Panama is usually visited by surfers from nearby Arugam Bay. It is criss-crossed by lagoons, where you can spot waterfowl and even the occasional elephant. Its arid beauty was relatively untouched until recent years. Tourism has already begun to make its mark here. Walk along Panama beach and you will find holidaymakers enjoying the sun and sea or learning to surf.

But walk just a few hundred metres inland, and you will meet P Somasiri, a slight, unassuming man who is embroiled in a decade long campaign to get his land back, along with his friends and neighbours.

P Somasiri

The history of arbitrary land acquisition in Panama dates back to 2003, when the Minister of Health, Nutrition & Welfare, the Assistant Government Agent of Ampara and the Divisional Secretary of Lahugala informed the residents of Ragamwela that they would have to move, as their land was now the property of the state. Once the land was taken over by the former Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha, it was handed over the the Sooriya Match company.

In 2004, the tsunami hit, with devastating consequences. Somasiri and the rest of the Panama residents had to rebuild their lives, from the ground up.

In 2009, with the end of the conflict, the land in Panama (around 1220 acres of it) was acquired by the Navy and air force, ostensibly to build villages for disabled military personnel. While building facilities for the military is certainly admirable, that was not what it was ultimately used for. In 2010, the Navy built a camp and subsequently, a hotel in the Horekanda , Egodayaya and Ulpassa areas.

That year, Somasiri and his friends faced fresh calamity - their houses were suddenly burned down, by unknown assailants, and they were evicted from their land. Incensed, they filed a case with the Human Rights Commission in Ampara.

What happened next was a long fought legal battle, which included P Somasiri being questioned by the CID on the infamous ‘fourth floor’ in Colombo. It was only after the recent Presidential elections that a Cabinet decision announced that 340 acres (out of 365) would be handed back to the local community.

Somasiri and his friends returned to their land on May 26, at around 1:30 am. However, this victory was shortlived.

Currently, Somasiri and the other villagers are living in thatched huts just a few metres from the beach - huts that they painstaking built themselves.

Apart from the forces refusing to move, MP Daya Gamage has allegedly taken an interest in the land they now live on, as it is close to the surf break. “He says we won’t be able to make use of the land to its maximum potential, so he will build a hotel and make sure we can benefit. But we know that once built, we will not even be able to go near the land,” Somasiri said.

Upon being contacted by Groundviews to verify these claims, Gamage denied that he had any hotels in the Panama area. "The Government has allotted the area [to the residents], and directed that nothing be built there," he said.

Nevertheless, there is indeed construction taking place. A few hundred metres from where Somasiri and his friends live, wooden structures loom – a series of cabanas. The villagers have already been discouraged from visiting here, but they manage to keep an eye on the goings-on anyway, since they are visible from the beach.

“Tourism is good for the country. We do not dispute that. But shouldn’t development benefit the people as well? The local community should be able to run businesses, not just the big companies,” Somasiri says.

The villagers of Ragamwela have never had an ethnic or religious problem – they have always lived together in peace. Now, they have had to band together against unimaginable obstacles – including the threat of getting electrocuted while climbing over the electric fences the Army put up to shut people out, not to mention the constant fear of encountering elephants, which often visit this area. Despite their hardship, the villagers are resolute.

“We will not leave from here, no matter what. We will die before they take this land from us,” the villagers said with absolute conviction.

Tourists bask in the sun on Panama beach, completely unaware that their holiday comes at such a heavy cost.

Later, Somasiri climbs to Moran Point, a series of 40 foot sand dunes, which protected Panama from the worst of the tsunami. He looks out at the Navy run Malima lagoon cabanas, visible in the distance. It is a place he can no longer visit, though Panama has always been his home.

"What sets it apart from the many “me too” hotels in the area is the marvelous concept which encapsulate the best of what nature has to offer, enveloped around a land rich in biodiversity comprising well appointed cabanas with luxurious appointments and a restaurant offering international cuisine," the lagoon cabana's website says - no mention, of course, of the families from the area who have been barred from entering again.


The Pasikudah stretch is well-known to beach-lovers. Today, this stretch is almost unrecognizable from the untouched place it once was. The public beach is crowded with people, who peter off as a series of large boutique hotels spring up along the shoreline – the same hotels named by the New York Times in their piece. Locals are not encouraged to wander on to this stretch of beach. But there is another story here, as NAFSO coordinator Shashikaran Poonyamoorthi tells us.

The Pasikudah beach stretch was once empty apart from the fishermen. Now, as new hotels spring up, the fishermen have had to move father and farther along the beach. At present, 150 boats have been shunted right to the end of the beach, where a dead coral reef stretches out to sea. Here, some of them wade into the shallow waters with nets to fish.

Now, even this small wadiya is to be denied to them. “Apparently, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came and asked these fishermen to move again, as a close friend of his wants to build a hotel here. He needs the beachfront as well,” Shashikaran said. “He has said the fishermen have to move somehow, that they won’t be able to stay.”

The problem is, these fishermen have no other place to go. Shifting inland to the lagoon will cause other problems – infringing on other fishermen’s territory, a completely different style of fishing to name a few. Yet, no one seems to be able to intervene. In desperation a collective of the fishermen have gone to several bodies. Just last month, a tourist conference facilitated by the UN World Tourism Organisation (WTO) was held on the Pasikudah beach stretch. A collective of the fishermen and some activists personally met the WTO representative, in a meeting that ended up spanning 3 hours. Yet, in the end, the WTO representative pointed out that tourism which didn't include, and ultimately uplift the lives of local residents, was neither necessary nor sustainable. Yet, ultimately, as a dignitary visiting on the invitation of the Government, his hands were tied. Subsequently, the fishermen faced negative feedback from the hotels, who asked why they had gone to outsiders to ask for help.

“Tourism is good. But you have to integrate the needs of the people. The hotels could buy the fishermen’s catch, or show the tourists who are interested how the fish is caught. Then everyone wins,” Shashikaran pointed out. However, the current status is that most of the top staff are outsiders – brought it from overseas or other areas, leaving menial jobs for the locals. “The hotels say 75% of the staff are from the area. What sort of jobs are they given? Cleaning or housekeeping,” Shashikaran points out.

The irony deepens when reading the description of some of these hotels. Take one such resort, Maalu Maalu, which “features charming wooden chalets inspired by the traditional ‘Waadiya’ of the local fishing village.” Another boutique hotel describes itself as “an intimate and luxurious retreat preserving the natural beauty of the environment” - no mention of the fishermen who have given up their own fishing grounds for the hotel to be built. And that’s just two of the hotels along this stretch.

Showcasing the best of what Sri Lanka can offer is undoubtedly important, not least because the tourism industry brings the country much-needed revenue and provides thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly. Yet, the concerns raised by Shashikaran, and those like him, are equally valid, and speaks to the need for a more comprehensive consultation process with the local community when building hotels in untouched areas.

It is only due to the vociferous protests of the fishermen of the area, even after threats from the police and the CID, that they have been able to make their voices heard, and as such, win a measure of protection for themselves from being asked to leave entirely. Yet, with the threat of a new hotel looming, even this protection may be temporary, although the Hotel's Association has officially denied this (see below for an official statement on the Pasikudah issue).

The Nilaveli/Kuchchaveli stretch

Trincomalee is also popular with tourists for its powdery beaches and calm seas. “Before the war, there was tourism, and it was done by the local community,” Priyantha says. At that time, the local community opened up their own homes and gave tourists food, or ferried them around on the pool-like sea with catamarans.

That was temporarily halted with the war, when many fled the area. However, post-2009, there was a big drive to promote the area for tourism. As the area opened up Priyantha, and colleagues like him, are trying to restart community tourism in the area, working with organisations like NAFSO. Priyantha himself is in the process of building a small guesthouse and attached restaurant, and runs a boat service to and from Pigeon Island in Nilaveli. But he says it’s an uphill battle against outsiders and larger hoteliers, who have begun competing against them instead of working together with them.

For instance, many of the larger hotels now offer their own boat services, as well as diving centres and other facilities. “We do it because it’s our culture and custom. They do it for money. They tell tourists not to come to us, we are fishermen [and implicitly untrustworthy.]” he explained.

Apart from that, access is also a problem. In several areas, hotels have blocked access to the sea by putting up gates. In certain areas leading to the lagoon, signs have been put up saying “No entry except for hotel guests.” The fishermen keep going, despite the sign, but that could change at any moment.

The worst plight however, is that of the displaced. Those returning from the war found that their land, which was considered a prime area for tourism, had been taken over by the state. Instead, they were shunted inland.

A stark contrast to the cheery guest houses along the coast, these families live without electricity. 10 families share a single toilet. They have a well, but no tap for running water.

“We need water and electricity. That would be such a great service. Elephants come through here too, and this scares us the most,” one of the IDPs told Groundviews. “We have been here for 7 years. So much time has passed, that many of the people living here have passed away or moved. When the rain comes in it’s very difficult. We are living with so much sorrow,” she continued. “We have no idea if we will ever get better facilities.”

Meanwhile, nearby, acres of land – as much as 25 acres at a time – are parceled off for ‘tourist development.’ Priyantha said that most of this land is parceled off and sold at the whim of local government officials, who often dole out the land to trusted friends.

“It’s very difficult for us,” Priyantha said.

Walk into the Thal Sevana hotel and you might find it an idyllic retreat. The calm, blue water is reminiscent of the Maldives, and children run and play in the water freely. It’s hard to imagine that this hotel is built on a High Security Zone along the Kankesanthurai coast. The front of the hotel is marked by classic cars in mint condition with explanatory signboards – none of which mention the conflict or this hotel's dark past.

The land Thal Sevana stands on was taken over by the military at the height of the war, at a time most of the residents of the area were fleeing for their lives. In the area immediately surrounding the hotel, the empty shells of crumbled homes and temples are a common sight.

Taking advantage of this, the military demolished some of the abandoned houses around them, and used the material from them to build the hotel. Once the war was over, people began to return – only to find their way barred as the land was still considered a High Security Zone.

It took years before the state finally began to hand over some of the land in Kankesanthurai to their rightful owners, who are only now returning and trying to rebuild. Driving through, you can still see bulldozers clearing away scrub and undergrowth.

Not long ago, you could still be arrested for walking into Thal Sevana without a reservation - your passport and reservation would be checked at the entrance. For a couple of months, however, the hotel has been open to the public, and anyone can simply walk into the hotel, as we did.

This freedom is illusory, however. The displaced residents, who live in deplorable conditions a few miles away, have been barred access to the land, on the grounds that it is a high security zone. They have been petitioning for the land to be returned to them, to no avail.

Military personnel continue to guard an area near the entrance. The staff of the hotel, too, are military, as evidenced by the buzz-cuts and the close scrutiny still given to those who walk into the hotel (though it must be said that we were not detained or questioned in any way.)

While any tourist, including locals, are given the freedom to walk around, and explore this hotel, schools in this area remain closed, and locals are not given access as freely, as the Kannan Arunasalam directed documentary "Sampur" noted.

1300 people from Myliddy, just 5 minutes from Thalsevana, continue to live in IDP camps, as a former resident of Kankesanthurai notes in the documentary (his testimony begins at around the 21 minute mark).

"There is a whole generation of people growing up in the camps... the younger generation don't know anything about where they are from," a resident says in the documentary. "Anyone can go to the hotel. If tourists can go there, why can't they open the schools? Let our children go to school there," he demanded, claiming over 3000 children were being denied an education as a result of their schools (an estimated 19 in Northern Valikamam) falling within the High Security Zone.

Armoury, with murals painted by the Forces

With this knowledge, it is all the more jarring to watch tourists lounging on sunbeds, sipping juice and bathing in the sea - seemingly oblivious to the heavy costs that were levied for their holiday.


The Dutch Bay consists of several scattered islands. Once used as a port, the Bay slowly fell into disuse during colonial times. The residents shifted to trade, and many moved inland. However, several continued to live there, some of whom continued to fish in the waters, fisheries activist and member of the Puttalam District Solidarity movement J Pathmanathan told us.

That changed when in 2005, former Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike gazetted a new tourism development project, encompassing 14 islands in the Dutch Bay. The area would be transformed into a hotel and recreational area.

Map courtesy the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority

No mention was made of the families still living on the island – nor of any alternate lands where they could live. In any case, most of the families, who had lived there for generations, had no intention of moving, despite their many difficulties. Yet their access to the sea was abruptly cut off in 2011 and 2012. Later on, fishermen appealing for help were told to 'produce deeds for assistance' A NAFSO report compiled in 2013 highlighted the plight of these people.

“We have been living in this isle for generations and we are not prepared to give up our rights even if we were given money in exchange of lands.” Sampath Pushpakumara, Mutwal isle

“Our people have been living in this isle from the time of our great grandfathers. We also have born and bred in Uchchimune isle and our livelihood is based here. Everybody in our village belong to one religion. We have no social disputes. We have been living free in this fishery life. The lagoon and sea are our resources our cottages by the lagoon and ocean have made it easier for us to carry out fishing. Although we don’t have much comfort here we are living free.” Anton Suresh, Anthony Shelton, Madhurani Almeida, EviginThuram, Uchchimune isle

Many of the families did not have deeds to prove ownership, apart from the fact that they had been living there for years. Local government officials visited these families and cajoled them into selling off the land, piece by piece. With access to their fishing grounds barred, and living in extreme financial difficulty, most of them took what was offered. Construction on the Dutch Bay project continues, although the area is as yet only accessible by tractor and boat.

Near the Seguwantiwe and Vidatamuni Windpower plant, an area of the Kappalady lagoon has been identified as ideal for kitesurfing. Companies have moved here, offering courses. Often, during season, you will find tourists coasting the shores of the lagoon, used mostly for beginners.

This comes at a cost to the local fishermen, according to Puttalam District Solidarity movement member J Pathmanathan, who says that they cannot access the lagoon as they once did. That's because the fishermen have been asked to shift their fishing grounds to a bund away from the prime spot - which is not an ideal location, Pathmanathan says. He adds that the fishermen would like a government subsidy to compensate them for the inconvenience they have faced due to having to shift their equipment and manpower.

The kitesurfing industry for their part says the issue of access is false, and that they have worked extensively with the local community. Managing Director of Kitesurfing Lanka, Dilsiri Welikala said that his company took steps to ensure there was discussion with the heads of the fishing societies. "We assured them that we will surf only at specific times. What's more, the kitesurfing industry has provided employment opportunities to the fishermen, many of who couldn't work during the monsoon season due to the weather," Welikala said. Speaking further he said that many services including boat hires had been outsourced to the villagers. Welikala said that to his knowledge the Kappalady operators had similar time-sharing agreements with the fishermen. There was even a loan scheme available which allowed fishermen to obtain loans, interest free, he said.

In fact, four of the largest kitesurfing schools recently held an event along with the fishing community, which was covered by the BBC and features the Fishing Society President speaking about the benefit that kitesurfing has brought to the area.

Nearby, in Kudawa, hotels are mushrooming up and down the beach. The fishermen here were also initially ordered to shift to a space much further away and inland, and offered compensation by the state to do so. They refused, as the land they were to be shifted to was so high that they would find it difficult to drag the boats down to the beach. Eventually, they went to court and won the right to stay where they were, Pathmanathan said. Apart from this, a common sight is the large mushroom cloud that envelopes the horizon further along the Bay. This was once 300 acres of residential areas and farmland, now used as a ‘bombing grounds’ by the military. The clouds make the residents and their animals living close by ill.

To compound this, land takeovers are par for the course.

Large tracts of land are fenced off for ‘tourism development’ in Kalpitiya- again, at the behest of politicians, often to favoured friends or top businessmen. The residents suddenly find themselves confronted with boards informing them that the land is ‘private only’ ‘for hotel guests’ or for ‘tourism development.’ Pathmanathan has piles of files and reports on the many land issues that occur around Kalpitiya – not all of them tourist-related. The residents, often impoverished, must choose to fight long and protracted legal battles, if they intervene at the correct time, or else be resigned to the fact that they have to give up their land.

These are just some of the instances where tourism and development have come at the cost of residents. There are many more – for instance, Pathmanathan highlighted Irudeniyawa, Kurunegala, a farming community which found itself in great peril when local government officials broke down a protective electric fence to allow more than 500 elephants right through the middle of the village – so that tourists could watch them feed at a nearby tank.

There are the upcountry estate workers, who work for Rs. 620 a day. Their interests lie in the hands of plantation companies, who while providing many services to ensure their worker's welfare, want to improve the worker's overall productivity before increasing their wages. These women become just another photo opportunity for tourists to snap - many of them unaware of the complex issues that surround their livelihoods. There are the people of Meemure, who gladly open up their homes to tourists but for half of the year, struggle to find water. This issue apparently persists in Valaichchenai on the East coast too, where local industry has polluted the lagoon making fishermen struggle to find catch and make ends meet. The "Lagoon's Edge" resort located within the Army cantonment near the Nanthikadal lagoon, in Mullaitivu, where the last battles of the war were fought, is another horrifying example. "Enjoy a soothing holiday and the cool breeze of Nanthikadal lagoon," the hotel's Facebook page reads, while noting that all who would like to stay here must be "recommended by a Sri Lankan Army official." That's not to mention the many military run resorts and eateries, as highlighted by Sri Lanka Campaign.

President of the The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, the apex body for the hotel industry, Hiran Cooray said that wherever development occurred, it would often lead to inconvenience for the local community. Cooray said he had personally met with the fishermen in Pasikudah and knew of their plight. "It is true they have been shifted right to the end. However to my knowledge, they still have access and can continue to get into the sea and fish. I have seen it with my own eyes," Cooray said.

Cooray said there were organisations who were 'making a mountain out of a molehill' and said to his knowledge, there was no issue barring access to the sea in Pasikudah in particular. He added that he did not have knowledge about areas such as Kalpitiya, which he had already identified as difficult to push for tourism as it was so seasonal. "There is tourism only for whale watching and kite-surfing - and many of those who do visit don't stay in hotels. I can't see much major development taking place there. I don't think the Dutch Bay project has been a successful venture for this reason," Cooray said. Asked about the issues raised in areas like Trincomalee, Cooray said, "For certain, wherever we go it's going to inconvenience people. This country has to be development oriented, and we have to live and let live," he said.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority did not respond to questions sent to them at the time of publishing this article. Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, John Amaratunga said he had heard no complaints of fishermen in areas such as Kalpitiya, Trincomalee and Pasikudah being barred from their fishing grounds. "There are no such complaints. The hotels are very cooperative with the fishermen and their rights. On the contrary, the fishermen now have better income with tourist projects. The fish they catch are absorbed by the hotels," Amaratunga said. Asked about the complaint from the fishermen that they would only have access to housekeeping jobs in the hotel sector, he said "If they have got a degree, then they can receive a better job." Amaratunga further said he had no knowledge of the controversy surrounding Thalsevana or the Panama land issues. "How can lagoon cabanas be built in Panama. There is no approval for this," he said.

What each of these cases highlight is a gap in planning and sustainable development - with the hoteliers and businessmen often remaining partially or completely unaware of the plight of local residents. This situation is certainly not helped by the ad hoc manner of reclaiming land by the state, with little to no consequence even when the deal itself was questionable- as a recent Sunday Times report highlighted. In this sense, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that land is reclaimed in a sustainable manner, after consultation with all stakeholders, including the local residents. This process is clearly being glossed over, in some areas more than others, and at a heavy cost.

This World Tourism Day, the important thing to remember is that while tourism development is a must for the country to move forward, it should not come at the cost to the local community- their livelihoods, their homes, and their dignity.

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