4 March, 2024


Does Tourism Benefit Third World Sri Lanka?

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda –

Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Third World governments invariably justify the promotion of tourism as a driving force for economic development. I question this claim and say that it is time to stop treating tourism as a holy cow to be protected and nurtured at all costs.

Tourism discourses are full of high-sounding rhetoric, liberally peppered with such terms as ‘poverty reduction’, ‘economic growth’, ‘sustainability’, ‘fair trade’, ’employment generation’, ‘good governance’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, and ‘peace-building’.

Moreover, concepts of ‘new tourisms’, such as community-based ecotourism, cultural tourism and niche markets are projected as ways forward to reform mass tourism, which is increasingly dreaded because of its negative impacts.

But what about the reality behind the glossy rhetoric that smacks of populist propaganda? What can be observed is, the more tourism authorities vow to protect ecosystems and natural resources in vulnerable destinations, the more the environment gets thrown out of balance due to the continued frenzied construction of tourism facilities.

The more we are told about tourism as a force for peace and understanding, the more the world is affected by both ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ wars, many of which are against ideologies or cultures and human-rights-abusing dictatorships use tourism to prop up their bad image.

The more decision-makers parade tourism policies for poverty elimination, the more the gap widens between the rich and the poor among and within nations, due to aggressive and unfair economic liberalisation. While people in rich countries drown in conspicuous consumption thereby destroying their own and others’ life bases, communities in less and least developed countries only receive the crumbs from the wealth that capitalist growth produces.

A destructive global business

Like other big industries, tourism is characterised by unhealthy mass concentrations of people, mass production, and mass activities. Today, it is common for people to criss-cross the globe to search for an exotic paradise, go shopping, attend a conference, play golf, cheer at a big sporting event, gamble in a casino, get thrilled in a theme park, relax in a spa resort or have medical or cosmetic surgery in a five-star hospital.

En-route, the travelling consumers can satisfy their needs and desires in the same fast food chains, supermarkets and designer brand shops like at home. Tourism is a truly global business that turns everything on Earth – even the most sacred domains – into commodities.

Most travellers would not want to wake up to the fact that they are just feeding a multi-billion-dollar industry and contributing to unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. And there is little awareness that as always, it is the poor who have to pay for the social and environmental costs of excessive tourism.

Governments emphasise tourism as a driving force for economic development. The Asia-Pacific region is the acknowledged motor behind the global tourism growth, with China and India representing the fastest-growing markets.

Illusory economic picture

Positive tourism data often serve to justify expensive infrastructure developments that primarily benefit the top echelons in travel and tourism. Many of the projects are based on external borrowings, deepening the financial debt crisis for poor nations, and many of the supplies and equipment used in the development of these projects are imported and the personnel involved in construction engaged from abroad.

Meanwhile, governments increasingly neglect the basic needs of local communities. Sri Lanka spent huge amounts of aid and taxpayers’ money to help the tourism industry back on its feet, while fishing and agricultural communities were displaced; and until today, poor tsunami victims are lacking adequate housing, water supply, social services and opportunities to rebuild economic livelihoods.

Leakages and Tricking Down Effects

Tourism is a big money-spinner, but local residents do not get a fair share because most of the tourism revenue is siphoned away by urban-based and foreign investors. The tourism sector is notorious for causing financial ‘leakage’ (due to high import content, repatriation of profits by foreign-owned tourism companies, etc.), and unbalanced and inequitable distribution of income.

Globalisation has only worsened the economic conditions for poor countries. Tourism services negotiations have been used particularly by the US and the European Union to increase pressure on governments of developing countries to abolish restrictions on foreign ownership and to allow a high degree of self-regulation by transnational corporations in the sector.

As a result, tourism-related industries in developing countries are experiencing unprecedented mergers and acquisitions, squeezing local businesses that are ill-equipped to face the cut-throat competition favouring giant foreign firms.

New policies for tourism development just add to the increasing inequality and asymmetry. These often involve the selling or leasing out of vast tracts of land to private developers and allows massive unregulated exploitation of natural and human resources for tourism purposes.

In recent years, however, tourism has as never before been highlighted as a dependent and high-risk industry. Frequent natural and man-made disasters, oil price hikes, exchange rate fluctuations and political turmoil have shown up the extreme vulnerability of the industry.

Ironically, the worsening climate crisis, to which the tourism industry itself has contributed significantly, is now ticking like a time bomb for the industry as many tourist attractions may be irreversibly destroyed by the impacts of climate change.

Particularly threatened are low-lying coastal regions and small island developing states as they have developed tourism monocultures, with tourism receipts constituting the major source of revenue.

While large tourism companies have responded quickly to impending emergencies by sponsoring high-tech disaster-warning systems and anti-terror security schemes, urgent mitigation and adaptation measures to enable poor communities to cope with any impending catastrophe are often delayed due to governments’ lack of funding and corruption.

Employment effects

Tourism is seen as a boon in terms of employment for people in developing nations. But in fact, tourism-related jobs are uncertain, seasonal and part-time, with a high turnover of staff, not involved in production.

The loss of livelihoods through tourism, for example in agriculture and fisheries has rarely been subjected to research. But the high out-migration of locals from tourist centres is a clear indication that tourism destroys more production jobs than it creates in services.

Despite the tourism leaders’ new affection for ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), exploitation of tourism workers remains rampant. Worldwide, the industry is taking advantage of migrant workers who provide the cheapest labour, endure the harshest working conditions and are least likely to organise in trade unions.

Women in tourism are found to have the most dehumanising and the worst-paid jobs. Tourism has an infamous reputation of boosting the sex industry wherever it takes root. Efforts to make industry comply with a code of ethics have not helped to curb trafficking in women and girls for sex work in tourist destinations, which in many cases deprives the victims of their fundamental human rights and exposes them to health risks such as HIV/AIDS.

Industry self-regulation has proven an utterly inadequate tool in tourist centres, where the sex, drugs and crime, gang violence, mafia-style politics and corruption are out of control.

The erosion of culture and traditional values is visible in all tourist destinations driven by over-commercialisation. Tourism, including ‘ecotourism’ also exploits indigenous and local communities and their cultures, turning them into mere exhibits for tourists’ entertainment.

The ugliest creations are ‘human zoos’ as set up by tour operators. Many indigenous peoples’ rights groups are therefore condemning tourism as a form of development aggression. Highlighting incidents of land rights violations and bio piracy, they have raised serious concerns about the rigorous approach of the ‘ecotourism’ industry that threatens indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and aggravates conflicts and tensions in their communities in tourism-related processes.

Severe environmental impacts

Tourism as ‘sustainable development’ is a myth as it continues to wreak havoc on land and marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Despite the industry’s ‘greenwash’ attempts, fertile agricultural lands are still being cleared, forests cut down, mountains flattened, beaches dug up, and coral reefs destroyed to provide resources for more and more monstrous tourism complexes.

Moreover, tourism accelerates unhealthy urbanisation processes and contributes to traffic congestion, noise and air pollution and the dumping of waste and untreated sewage. The depletion and degradation of scarce water resources, particularly due to mushrooming golf courses and spa businesses, aggravates the water supply crisis in many communities.

High energy consumption in tourism facilities and greenhouse gas emissions linked to transportation, especially the explosive growth in air travel, contribute significantly to climate change.

Given all these serious impacts, tourism must no longer be treated like a holy cow that is protected and nurtured at all costs. Particularly in these times of looming social and environmental crises, governments and inter-governmental agencies should prioritise people’s basic needs, particularly food security.

Decision-makers should take a more responsible approach to tourism, by establishing strong legal and regulatory frameworks and ensuring the enforcement of these rules and regulations on the industry.

Corporate-driven voluntary initiatives, such as guidelines, codes of conduct and accreditation schemes, are not the key to effectively tackling tourism-related problems.

What is needed instead is a people-centred approach to development that is aimed at reversing the negative impacts of globalisation and restoring the values of justice, democracy and self-determination in development; an approach that allows local communities to reclaim land and resources that have been unfairly taken away, to rehabilitate the environment that greedy corporate capitalists have ravaged and to revive traditions and cultures that have been distorted and exploited for profit-making purposes.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Mattala Rajapaksa paddy storage should be promoted as tourist destination?

  • 4

    You make some good points. However I would like to see actual data to support your various allegations.

    A good example of tourism gone bad is Hawaii – specifically Oahu. Tourism, and the resultant migration of people to the island from elsewhere (especially those with big wallets) have made housing super-expensive making it impossible for native-born Hawaiians to own homes. House prices are the highest and 3X the national average in Hawaii. Even the land under the structure is sold separately!

    Apart from the housing crisis, employment suffers, because the populace is involved in tourism at the expense of other industries – thus no motivation to produce much else. It is ironic that fruits and vegetables (which can be grown easily in this tropical islands) are actually MORE expensive n than in the mainland!

    IF Colombo does not want to end up like Waikiki beach, then we’d better take a closer look at apartment-living (the current rage in Colombo with all those “super-deluxe” towers coming up). We are destroying our natural beauty and sustainable living style by erecting these tall monstrosities in a tropical land. The highest floors are going to be very hot requiring round-the-clock A/C and high powered water pumps to pump water. What a waste of energy! Also what happens when the power goes out?

    Stupid is not the word, as my mother would say.

    • 1

      …and I hear that 50% of those high rise towers are potential fire hazards exacerbated by our piss-poor fire fighting service in Colombo.

  • 5

    So terribly true! Trump will keep his promise of greater isolation of the US from the globalized world. Together with Brexit, the Western countries will learn to consolidate their wealth without being invasive and dependent on other smaller countries to maintain their wealth. In the meantime, let’s hope that current GoSL takes up the trend, be fair to their natural and traditional livelihoods, and help the globe create that Newest-World-Order kind of thing. Otherwise the West will begin their new kind of financial procedures, and Sri Lanka will be shamefully left behind.

  • 2

    The Sinhalaya, still in the deep shit of the Mahavamsa, get his income through getting his young girls screwed up by Arabs in the Middle-East and his young boys buggered on the beaches of the South. Why stop him from this income? He fees sovereign because he at least gets some income.

  • 0

    Does Tourism Benefit Third World Sri Lanka? In SL, the tourism is degraded by both, tourists as well as Sri Lankans. And when these 2 people meet together, that is what keeps our tourism run :-) We have retired come here to have sex with young men / women, while pedophiles come for the very same purpose too. And you won’t see too much of young travelers around as SL is too slow or yet to develop for them. Business travelers…you see a lot of Indians around..:-(

    What I mean is, SL is yet a place when there is lack of choices or no choices for travelers and budget travelers. Otherwise, SL is not in par with regional counter-parts in attracting or accommodating the tourists

  • 2

    Good article. Most of the benefits are swallowed in the profits of the foreign tour operating companies, and an appreciable sum held overseas for those Sri Lankans who provide services in Sri Lanka. The crumbs of the operation fall to those in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka will need to make a choice, and soon, as to whether it can go on suffering the dilution, or, like some countries, limit capacity – less can be more.

    The affluent tourist industry can now stand on its own feet and support it own promotions, and the money hitherto spent on supporting the powerful tourist lobby can be diverted to attending some of the more pressing civic needs – garbage clearance, flood alleviation, dengue…..etc. On the other hand we could wait for the backlash when our tourists say enough to the dengue, the shitty garbage piles, and the tribulations of the ever increasing floods.

  • 3

    Dear Pethiya,
    You should’ve felt sad reading the comments of the usual commentators and it is not hard to guess who’s side they are in.
    You should have given at least few references so someone else could follow up with what they need for a further study.
    What has been ommitted are the two important new developments: First the removal of the land tax of 300% which at least deter some foreigners buying all of the remaining beautiful places in this island.
    Second is the loophole which was proposed to be created by the former FM who wanted allow any foreigner/ or an expat get the chance of sending money to anywhere in the world if they “invest” a tiny sum of money in the form of dollars here.
    And add to those the current FMs proposal to support the alcohol industry in a big manner in the name of tourism (which will definitely damage the economy) and we have a very fertile situation here for expansion of tourism and foreign syphoning of what remains.
    Thank you for the excellent article and timing of it could not have been better.

  • 3

    Tourism is what caused the creation of ETA – the revenue was going to Paris and Madrid and the locals were unable to maintain themselves because of high cost of living.
    Now that has changed with the locals making it in technology.
    You are third world and nidi kumbas so.
    When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.
    Then make in lanka.

  • 2

    When SWRDB was asked by the British how you will pay for free education, free food, free health He said I am Oxford Blues and ours is dharmista so buy the Sarema.
    Now Lanka exports women, enslaves women imports tourist to get the exchange to lay food on the table and this is stolen by the raddala type in power and you vote for them for a bath parcel and addiya.

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