Intrigued by how tourism is changing Sri Lanka, one of our contributors spent a year in the deep south studying how the industry impacted both tourists and locals. The following article is based on research conducted over the last year.
Strategies have been planned, targets set, and future ambitions outlined in the island’s tourism sector, but can the workers of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector make ends meet?
Much of rural Sri Lanka turned into beach towns and tourism hotspots at some point in the past five to six years. As a result, the numbers of guesthouses and other hospitality outlets is increasing across the west and south and has just started to pick up in the east and north of the island.
Even though there are evidently negative sides to tourism, the locals refuse to talk to the press about them in fear of jolting away tourists who bring with them lucrative business.
Indeed, the slow adjustment that the villagers have undertaken can clearly be seen to cope with this new model. While ten years ago, the breadwinners depended entirely on fishing or farming, now the younger generations earn their income from work at hotels and restaurants.
Work In The Tourism Sector
It would be naïve to deny that the introduction of tourism has diversified the economy of these areas and employed numerous workers. In fact, for most of the local families, the option of working in the tourism sector remains the lesser of two evils in comparison to more traditional livelihoods, such as work in the fishing industry, for instance.
However, work in hospitality remains far from ideal due to several reasons, the most critical of which is the instability that it entails. First, such work is rarely bound by an employment contract that can protect the rights of those involved. Working conditions and minimum wage are not set and during peak seasons the staff can work up to 90 hours a week.
For the young boys who work on the beach, who are otherwise famously known as “beach boys”, their excitement about finding work at an early age and mingling with foreigners soon fades once they approach their mid-twenties when substantial financial obligations start weighing them down.
And, while they are divided into two groups, the ones who aspire to be like their fair-skinned customers and others that build resentment towards them, they are soon faced with the bitter realisation that they are not equal to the tourists.
Sadly, the inexperience of the young staff and the unfortunate condescending behaviour of some foreigners could mislead the local boys into thinking that this inequality transcends pure economics and spills over to other areas, causing them to have low self-esteem.
Turning A Blind Eye
This is of course exacerbated by the fact that many foreigners are oblivious to the damage that they leave behind and the various methods of discrimination that they employ during their interactions with the locals.
Many foreigners who come here view themselves to be in a position to “enlighten” and educate the locals that they deal with; some are not concerned with respecting local cultures and values, while others can be openly rude and even aggressive with the locals.
When such situations escalate, the police often turn a blind eye to the tourists’ violations, and the locals are left to fend for themselves, putting them in direct confrontation with accusations about “Sri Lankans’ poor behaviour” and “sabotaging tourism, a main source of income for many.”
Even though they enjoy better financial benefits, business owners of the hospitality outlets are also being affected. As a result of low wages and long working hours, employers are sometimes subject to theft and robberies by the staff. Apart from that, it remains difficult for them to run their businesses on a daily basis due to the unreliability and the lack of training of the local workforce.
The Bleak Off-season
All these issues often come to the surface during the off-season, when the tourist hotspots turn into ghost towns haunted by poverty. The tuk tuks in the streets disappear, the hospitality outlets close, and the beach becomes deserted as the ocean eats away the sand strip.
During this time, the villagers end up confined to their homes, consumed by thoughts and concerns about accumulated loans from the local moneylenders and banks. There are also insurance policies that fathers and grandfathers started that now face threat of cancellation because of default payments.
During this time, some argue that the villagers can try to take advantage of internal tourism, the Sri Lankan city dwellers who come for holidays. However, Sri Lankan tourists are turned away, unwelcomed by villagers who refuse to be looked down upon by yet another new segment of tourism. It is easier for them to swallow their dignity with foreigners who they may never meet again, but to be debased by their own people is even more unbearable.
Tourism In The Global South
Sri Lankans are not the only ones stuck in this cycle. The growing tourism sector across the global south has resulted in more or less the same outcome.
This then calls for more discourse, perhaps even a movement, aimed at offering solutions on how to sustain the industry during the off-season. Such a movement would however also require the participation of the west that keeps exporting tourists with very little awareness about the impact they leave behind, other than the economic benefit.
Featured image courtesy srilankaservicexport.com