The war is over. The twenty six year war, or rather the civil war, in Sri Lanka was officially declared over when the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed by Sri Lankan military on May 19, 2009. In the island, no one talks of terrorism any more. Huge flex hoardings with different postures of Mahinda Rajapaksha, the president turned war hero of Sri Lanka, exhibited along the 17,000 miles long paved roads of the country, talk of rebuilding the nation.
And the rebuilding of the nation has much to do with massive programmes to boost the tourism economy of the country. In Sri Lanka, which can boast of its picturesque beaches, lush green valleys, rich wildlife, tea and seven UNESCO heritage sites, boosting tourism to rebuild its economy is justified, in the sense that the country lacks any other programme to support its incredibly policed society.
Rebuilding through Tourism
Tourism has been on the agenda of the government since 2005, when the Tamil liberation movement lost its ground in the east and in the north, the once ‘liberated' region of the country. In the "mahinda chinthana", the long term policy framework for development of the country formed in 2005 and named after the President Mahinda Rajapaksha, tourism formed one of the major components to address the war hit economy. In the policy framework, tourism formed the most powerful sector to boost the socio-economic development of the nation. The vision was to turn Sri Lanka into the foremost destination of South Asia within another six years. According to the "mahinda chinthana" by 2016 Sri Lanka is to achieve two million tourists every year and tourism should become the third largest foreign exchange earner after textiles and foreign remittances. The policy framework talks of everything possible in tourism vocabulary: nature tourism, adventure tourism, agro-tourism, culture tourism, community tourism, sports tourism, eco tourism, and wellness tourism.
In 2009, just before the end of the war, following the "mahinda chinthana", the Government of Sri Lanka formulated a national strategy for Sri Lanka Tourism and a strategy plan for 2009-12. The strategy plan includes incentives to foreign and domestic investors and speedy investment facilitation to attract 1.5 million tourists per annum - "if peace prevails by 2016".
Tourism as Foreign Exchange Earner No. 1?
While the 2005 policy framework talks of making tourism the third largest foreign exchange earner, the strategy plan envisages it to be the largest foreign exchange earner. Its vision for Sri Lanka Tourism says it wants to make the country one of the foremost tourism destinations of Asia, benefiting all stakeholders of the tourism industry and the people of Sri Lanka. Every citizen of the country, the vision says, must play their part, however small, to make Sri Lanka the Asian tourism icon.
To achieve its vision, the Government of Sri Lanka has received huge funds as donations from international donors for developing the tourism sector of the country. The Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has given USD 30 Million as a donation to develop tourism in Negombo, Nuwara Ealia, Kandy, Sigiriya and Dambulla. USD 20 million has been donated by the World Bank under its country assistance strategy to develop massive tourism projects in Bentota and Kalpitiya. The Government has also set up a Tourism Development Fund to fund all tourism initiatives by different governmental agencies to boost tourism.
Visit Sri Lanka Year 2011
The Sri Lankan government has declared 2011 as the ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year'. It has launched a USD 20 million massive advertisement campaign to attract international tourists to the country. However, the catch phrase, "Sri Lanka: Small Miracle", is yet to hit tourism markets in a big way internationally, perhaps as a result of economic recession or still not withdrawn travel advisories in the West. But if one has to believe the official statistics, the country shows a very positive trend in terms of tourism revenue. Sri Lanka receives approximately 500,000 visitors each year and the sector forms nearly three percent of the USD 40 billion economy. With the projection of 20 percent growth in tourism arrival, the tourism revenue is expected to reach 8 percent.
Everything in relation to tourism in Sri Lanka is perfect in papers. Clearly drawn master plans, ambitious programmes, encouraging statistics, well designed strategies for promotions, and inflow of funds from international donors to boost tourism economy give an impression that nothing would remain a hurdle to make the country the Asian tourism icon. Everything has been designed in laboratory condition.
But there lies an "if peace" in Sri Lanka's tourism vision document, that has a very sarcastic implication. And the sarcasm lies in the fact that the "small miracle" is the only country in the world that does not have any external threat, yet it spends millions of dollars on arms and on its military. Theoretically the end of the war should have resulted in the demilitarization of the country, one of the most militarized countries of South Asia, if not the world. The end of ethnic conflict should ideally have turned the military of the country without any mission. But on the contrary, the Sri Lankan army intends to recruit tens of thousands of new troops and to increase its massive military budget which was USD 1.6 billion last year. This means peace prevails in the country at gun point. The presence of heavily armed young soldiers and barricades along the highways is a testimony to this. This also means that for every dollar that reaches the island from tourism, a portion goes to procuring sophisticated arms from abroad. The country might not be the right destination at least for the time being.
Vinod Krishnan is attached to the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST), Calicut, Kerala, India. He is a board member of "Kabani - the other direction", a South Indian initiative working on tourism issues.