Ethical Tourism in Sri Lanka
Many tourism companies in Sri Lanka are associated with individuals and organizations implicated in war crimes or serious human rights violations. Others are problematic because they are complicit in the white-washing of human rights abuses. Please explore this map, and have a read of the information below, to find out more about the companies which we believe pose ethical concerns and that you may wish to avoid as a result.
Generally, these tourism companies fall into the following categories:
Disclaimer: as explained here, the gravity and nature of the ethical concern that has resulted in a company being included in the list below may vary significantly from case to case. Users of this site are encouraged to read the further information provided in the drop-down boxes below to come to an informed judgement of their own about whether it is ethical or unethical to use a particular company.
Something missing from this page? If you know of a company or tourist attraction that you think should be listed here and isn’t, please get in touch and let us know.
Airports and flight providers
‘Air Travel Services (PVT) Ltd’ are closely associated with ‘Laya’ group, another army run chain of hotels and resorts.
It remains unclear whether the Air Force benefit financially from this arrangement. Almost half of the land space at the airport remains under Sri Lankan Air Force control and continues to operate as an air base.
Ratmalana airport, another military air base, is also currently being considered for civil aviation use, with reports that the Air Force could be granted a huge compensation payout for re-location.
‘Helitours’, the commercial arm of the Sri Lankan Air Force, is a domestic airline which connects all the airfields within the country, flying between Ratmalana, Trincomalee and Palaly three times a week.
The ‘Helitours’ fleet includes several military aircraft that have been re-purposed for civilian use. It is conceivable that these aircraft may have been used in the commission of war crimes and mass atrocities.
According to its website, ‘Helitours’ seeks “to be the leader in domestic aviation in Sri Lanka” – a prime example of flagrant militarisation.
Hotels and resorts
A stones throw from the hotel is Keppapilavu, a small village where over 100 families have been protesting – for well over a year – demanding the return of lands seized by the military during the war. Although some land has been returned, a substantial area is yet to be vacated by the army. Many of those who have returned have complained of finding their homes damaged and in states of disrepair.
The erection of high-barbed wire fences around these coastal areas by the navy has had a huge impact on local residents, whose livelihoods depend on access to the surrounding fishing waters. Many fishermen now have to walk several miles to access beaches only a few hundred meters away. Fishermen have raised their concerns surrounding this tourism project since its inception.
The resort is currently under construction and aiming to reopen at the end of 2018.
The year 2018 saw a spate of allegations of sexual assault against foreign tourists occurring on the island’s Southern coast, a symptom of the widespread impunity for sexual offences that exists across the island and what some have described as a “pandemic of sexual violence.”
The resorts offerings include “experiencing the life of a Dutch prisoner” – a rather disturbing prospect when you consider that its cells recently held Sri Lankan political prisoners.
‘Hayleys’ are reported to have close ties to the former Rajapaksa regime, who have been accused of war crimes. In 2011, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the company, A.M. Pandithage was appointed as Sri Lanka’s honorary Consul to Mexico. 50.4% of the company is owned by Co-Chairman K.D.D. Perera, Sri Lanka’s richest man, whose vocal public support for the Rajapaksa regime coincided with him being granted several top government positions (including Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment, Sri Lanka’s Secretary of State for Transport, and membership of the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency).
In 2013, in Weliweriya, peaceful protests against water pollution allegedly caused by a Hayleys-owned factory were brutally repressed by the security forces, leaving 3 dead. Meanwhile, according to one report, the authorities provided the factory with police and army protection. No one has been held accountable for the killings. Local residents have continued to complain of water contamination allegedly caused by the factory.
Hayleys own a number of hotels in Sri Lanka, as part of its ‘Hayleys Tours’ arm, including:
- ‘Amaya Resorts & Spas’ is a chain of luxury resorts located throughout the island.
- ‘Coral Rock by Amaya’ in Hikkaduwa.
- ‘Kingsbury Hotel’ in Colombo.
- ‘The Fortress Resort & Spa’ in Galle.
- ‘The Villas’ in Wadduwa.
The security manager at Heritance is (at time of writing, August 2018) SSP K. H. Jayaweera, a retired Deputy Inspector General of the Sri Lankan Police. During the final phase of the civil war in the Vanni region, Jayaweera is reported to have been in charge of the Special Task Force – an elite paramilitary arm of the Sri Lankan police implicated in multiple human rights violations, including abductions, enforced disappearance, torture and the killing of civilians.
The announcement of the venture prompted an outpouring of anger from those claiming that it both trivialised and commodified the life experiences of a group of people who have been denied their rights for many decades, and who continue to endure appalling work and living conditions to this day. Treated appallingly under the British, then prevented from gaining citizenship until 2003, up-country Tamils remain one of the most marginalised groups in Sri Lanka.
A reply by Jetwings described the response as “sensationalist”and defended the experience as a reflection of the wishes of their employee, Meena Amma, a former estate worker and Jetwing housekeeper of 12 years.
‘Lagoon Cabanas’ is part of a wider tourism development programme in the area which, according to a report by Oxfam, has seen over 350 families forcibly evicted from their homes without proper compensation. In July 2010, masked men wielding weapons began attacking the villages, causing local residents to flee. Afterwards the land was confiscated by the army. Several residents who complained about the confiscation to a People’s Tribunal in Colombo were subsequently threatened by the police. Many have continued their fight for justice while living in displacement camps and temporary shelters.
The hotel, which is built on land seized from Tamil owners during the war, is steeped in monuments to the military victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces. It appears to have been specifically designed as a space where military personnel can bask in the glory of their war triumph – a war which claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.
In January 2017, military officials reportedly informed local residents that the land will not be returned to them.
Access to the beach is limited to only those who can pay the entrance fee, thereby excluding many members of the local community.
Despite the discovery, official efforts to find out the truth have been extremely limited. In the words of one journalist: “Not a single update or word on the human remains found on the site has been published in the mainstream media since [police investigations began in May 2017]. It’s almost as if this story itself, like the bones beneath, was better buried.”
Details of the identities of the skeletons have never been released. Activists have accused the government of seeking to “bury atrocity crimes with tourism.”
The resort is located directly inside the intensely militarised High Security Zone (HSZ), a vast area of land that has been appropriated by the Sri Lankan government from private owners in successive waves from the 1990s onwards. Following the end of the war in 2009, at least 7,000 acres was freshly acquired. The HSZ was initially built to “blockade against Tiger resupply ships,” but has continued to operate on a vast scale despite the defeat of the LTTE.
The expelled Tamil inhabitants – including many fishermen – continue to protest in hope of their land being returned by the government. In April 2017, a small portion of several hundred acres was returned to its owners, many of whom found their homes destroyed or in a state of disrepair. At the handover ceremony, the Sri Lankan army commander issued a chilling warning to those present, stating that “[just] like we grant you these houses and lands, we are able to take it back again.”
According to local reports, visitors to the resort consist mostly of international tourists, Sinhalese public officials, and the families of soldiers from the South.
While the ventures in this area are by and large not military run, there is a wealth of material highlighting the devastating human and environmental impacts of what appears to be a highly aggressive and locally unaccountable form of top-down economic development. Among the worst affected have been local fishermen, whose ability access to the bay’s fishing waters has been severely restricted as a result of hotels being constructed along the shorefront.
The development zone contains a number of hotels, some of which have been specifically identified in reports as being potentially problematic. These include:
- ‘Amaya Beach Resort and Spa’.
- ‘Amethyst Resort’ is a hotel that was opened in 2012 by Basil Rajapaksa, brother of alleged war criminal Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Economic Development Minister. In a recent article, locals alleged that a nearby pond had been polluted by sewage running from the resort.
- ‘Maalu Maalu Resort’ (who wrote to us denying that they were in any way involved with the government or human rights violations).
- ‘Uga Bay Resort’.
- ‘Sun Aqua’.
Finally, one recent report alleges that of the 15 kiosk stalls stationed along the beachfront, all but 3 are run by the army.
‘MHS’ ventures include:
- ‘Club House’ in Colombo.
- ‘Dambakolaputa Rest’ in Jaffna.
- ‘Fort Hammenheil’ in Jaffna.
- ‘Golflink Hotel’ in Trincomalee.
- ‘Kirinda Diving Center’ in Kirinda.
- ‘Lagoon Cabanas’ in Panama.
- ‘Lake Front Rest’ in Kanthale, Trincomalee.
- ‘Light House Galley’ in Colombo.
- ‘Reception Hall’ in Poonewa.
- ‘Reception Hall’ in Hambantota.
- ‘Reception Hall’ in Ranminithenna.
- ‘Sober Island Resort’ in Trincomalee.
- ‘Weligambay Villas’ in Mirissa.
Further information about these ventures is available on this page under the relevant category.
‘Laya Group’ ventures include:
- ‘Laya Beach’(AKA ‘Wadduwa Resort’) in Colombo.
- ‘Laya Leisure’ (AKA ‘Kukuleganga Holiday Resort’) in Bulathsinhala, between Colombo and Kandy.
- ‘Laya Safari’, a resort located in Yala National Park.
- ‘Laya Waves’ in Kalkudah.
Further information about these ventures is available on this page under the relevant category.
Tourists are encouraged to be vigilant of other hotels and resorts that are army run, but whose true status might not be obviously apparent. Previously, it has been reported that the military have built two resorts in Mailady, Kankasanthurai (near Jaffna). There have also been past reports of plans to build holiday resorts and hotels in Colombo, Passikudah, Puthukkudiyiruppu.
Restaurants and food stands
Many of these can be found on the A9 Highway, including for example the ‘Iranamadu Welfare Shop‘ Kilinochchi, and on the A14 just before Mannar Bridge.
Of course, not all eateries on the A9 are run by the army. Indeed many are run by local families and make a great ethical choice. But those at army checkpoints, or staffed by people in uniform, should be avoided.
Sadly, lots of local tour guides appear to be choosing army run food stands. Don’t be afraid to insist against it.
There are allegations that, as a result of being run by the military, the restaurant has been able to circumvent taxes, licensing requirements, and food hygiene inspections.
Sights and attractions
In the North of Sri Lanka where – both traditionally and (apart from the military) today – there are very few Buddhists, there are now many stupas. Many of these have been constructed next to military camps, as well as adjacent to, or in place of, Hindu temples, Christian churches, and Muslim mosques. This has created a perception that there is underway a state-sponsored project of “Buddhist Sinhalese religious and cultural imperialism.”
In Batticaloa in the East, the Military has seized land considered sacred by many Tamils to allow the construction of a Buddhist stupa designed to attract tourists.
We advise tourists to carefully consider the underlying political dynamics that are at play in these areas, and to investigate the origins of religious sites during their visits.
Like many areas controlled by the military in the North and East, there are concerns about the ability of locals to access their former lands, as well as the possibility that the sanctuary may be being used as a means to prevent the investigation of mass graves.
- R Premadasa International Stadium in Colombo, under the Air Force.
- Pallekele Stadium in Kandy, under the Navy.
- Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, under the Army
At time of writing (October 2018) it remained unclear whether – or to what extent – these grounds had been returned to civilian ownership and control.
Cricket has routinely been used by Sri Lankan politicians as a vehicle for exerting influence and for shoring up political support. Conversely, many cricketers “have been eager ambassadors” for the regime, while turning a blind eye to persistent human rights violations.
The Trincomalee course was opened in 2012 in a ceremony led by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an alleged war criminal. According to its website, “proceeds [from the golf course] are utilized for the benevolence of [Air Force] personnel and their family members.”
Though operated by the Sri Lankan Coast Guard, it is part of the ‘Malima’ chain, which is owned by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Activists that we have spoken to suggest that the arrangement is another way of preventing local ethnic minority communities from returning to their homes in the area; worse still, that it might be a ploy to prevent investigation of an area suspected of harbouring mass graves and other evidence of war-crimes.
Tourists should consider whether their rupees might be better spent with local producers, rather than a company whose profits flow directly to the Sri Lankan state.
Dole withdrew in 2011 following a campaign by Rainforest Rescue, which accused the company of clearing thousands of acres of land home to elephants and other endangered animal and plant species.
Locals who previously relied on the forests for collecting bees honey, firewood and food have complained of being denied access to the park by the army. They have also expressed fears about the diversion and contamination of limited water resources as a result of cultivation in the area.
Similar stories of alleged illegal ‘leasing-out’ of land by the Sri Lankan Army have been reported in nearby Kandakadu Forest. Latterly, following their withdrawal from Somawathiya, Dole have been accused of further harmful land clearances of thousands of acres in ‘Lunungamwehera National Park’ in the South of the country, allegedly assisted by the company’s connections with high level politicians.
We encourage tourists to take time to research the many excellent local services that are available.
Dilmah wrote to us defending their involvement in the project by pointing out the social benefit of the work that they do in supporting efforts for peace and development. They added “Dilmah has no involvement in the management or operation of the site although we were instrumental in its design and construction. In areas that are controlled by the military, if we wish to extend humanitarian support, we must necessarily involve the local administration which in some areas includes the army. There is however no commercial alignment in these and as I hope you will agree our cooperation with civilian or military administration in each area is a requirement for delivering tangible benefit and cannot be construed negatively.”
- The LTTE Sea Tiger Submarine Yard, Puthukudiyiruppu.
- The LTTE Sea Tigers Training Pool, Puthukudiyiruppu.
- Army War Information Centre, Puthukudiyiruppu.
- Puthukudiyiruppu Victory Monument, Puthukudiyiruppu.
- Kilinochchi War Memorial, Kilinochchi.
- Elephant Pass War Memorial, Jaffna.
- Gamini Kularatne Monument, Jaffna.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for sites built by the victor, many of these monuments and information centres present a grossly distorted picture of the war; downplaying the scale of civilian casualties, neglecting to mention allegations of atrocity crimes, and promoting the military’s favoured narrative of the final offensive as a “humanitarian rescue operation.”
The imagery deployed is often that of the conquering Sinhala soldier – a crass form of ethnic triumphalism for those war-affected communities who are still reeling from the effects of the war and who are yet to see the root causes of the conflict addressed. A telling feature of these sites is that in many of them the signage is in Sinhala and English only.
While we don’t advocate avoiding these sites entirely – not least because they can provide important insights into the way in which the Sri Lankan state has sought to assert its authority in war-affected areas since the end of the war – we do urge visitors to adopt a critical approach. Where applicable, please refrain from giving money to the military to access these sites.
‘A Mega Tourism’ project was initiated inside ‘Wilpattu National Park’ in 2014, the Sri Lankan Navy having acquired 900 acres of forestry land, much of it illegally. The navy justified its seizure as necessary for “security reasons, as the LTTE threat still exists”.
The acquisition has been enthusiastically championed by several hardline Sinhala-Buddhist groups. Some reporters have speculated that this “rush to save the Wilpattu National Park” is in fact a pretext to prevent the return of displaced people from minority communities, many of whom have sought resettlement nearby the park.