1. Know who to avoid
When travelling in Sri Lanka, there’s a real risk that the money you spend could help line the pockets of war criminals and human rights abusers. We have created a list of companies and chains where we believe this risk – and other ethical concerns – may arise. For more information about specific companies you might wish to avoid, click here.
2. Understand the supply chain
When you book a holiday to Sri Lanka, it is important to understand exactly where your money is going. If you book a package holiday, you will most likely deal with a tour operator. But that tour operator will in turn use an inbound agency who will arrange bookings with various hoteliers and transport providers.
There are multiple links between all of the various tour operators, inbound agencies, hoteliers and transport providers operating in Sri Lanka. This means that even if you are on a tour package which includes only ‘ethical’ hotels, you could still be using an operator or inbound agency which offers less ethical products. In other words, you might – despite your best intentions – form part of a supply chain that benefits individuals in the tourism industry who are linked to human rights abuses.
The best thing you can do to minimise the risks is to do your research. A good place to start is to check what kinds of companies your tour operator is using and to see if they appear on our list of companies to avoid. But you can go further too: by, for example, asking your tour operator if they have conducted a human rights risk assessment. One of the most useful things that you can do is to use your power as a consumer to hold tour providers to a higher standard of ethical conduct.
Of course, one of the simplest ways to take control of your role in the supply chain is to tailor your own itinerary, and to make use of the kinds of ethical alternatives that we outline below.
3. Use ethical alternatives
For tourism to be ethical it must not be exploitative, and it must ensure that local people get a fair share of the economic benefits. Though we are unable to provide a comprehensive list of ‘ethical’ tourism companies – and while we refrain from endorsing, or vouching for, any particular provider – below are some pointers and resources that might help steer you in the right direction.
- Sri Lanka hosts many fantastic family-run hotels and local businesses, which offer experiences far more personal and intimate than any of the big resorts. When using accommodation search engines, try to keep an eye out for these and, where it’s due, be sure to give positive feedback and encourage others to stay too.
- In many parts of the country you can find community projects that provide fair employment to local people. If you want to visit a tea plantation while in the hill country, try to find one that operates to Fairtrade standards, and ask about the working conditions for tea pickers.
- Justice Travel is a social impact travel company that works in partnership with human rights defenders, community leaders and journalists. They are currently developing a range of projects in Sri Lanka.
- There are a wide variety of organisations that offer volunteer placements in Sri Lanka, including on issues related to human rights and in aid of war-affected communities. Examples of these include Comdu.it, the UK-Sri Lanka Trauma Group, and SLV.Global, to name but a few.
- Finally, some organisations sometimes offer homestays with human rights defenders. These can offer a way of seeing what the country is really like, as well as (depending on the circumstances) providing the individual in question with a degree of protection. It’s not for everyone, but if you are interested please get in touch with us.
4. Get informed
One of the most important things you can do is to get informed about the situation in Sri Lanka. Not only will this allow you to better navigate some of the ethical risks related to your spending; it will also provide you with the opportunity to engage in some enlightening and rewarding conversations with those who live there.
There is much in Sri Lanka’s recent history that the regime would prefer tourists not to know or talk about. Indeed, tourism itself appears to have been a major component of the government’s attempt to white-wash the past and to project an image of itself as an island ‘at peace’ following a triumphal (and clean) victory over terrorism. One only needs to scratch the surface to see that this narrative of events doesn’t quite stack up, and that the reality today is not quite as straightforward or idyllic as the Sri Lankan Tourism Board would like to project to the outside world.
There are a wide range of resources which we would recommend prospective tourists dip into before organising a trip to Sri Lanka. Here is a non-exhaustive selection of the highlights:
- Videos: before you visit Sri Lanka, we strongly recommend watching ‘No Fire Zone’, an award-winning documentary about the final stages of the civil war. It remains to this day one of the most powerful and informative resources for those seeking to gain an understanding of Sri Lanka’s recent history. A range of shorter topical videos, including recent news pieces and short films, can be found here.
- Books: Books like ‘Still Counting the Dead’ by former BBC journalist Frances Harrison, ‘The Cage’ by Gordon Weiss, and ‘Seasons of Trouble’ by Rohini Mohan offer some important – and oftentimes very disturbing – accounts of the end of the war through the eyes of those who lived through it.
- News, opinion and comment: for recent information about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, a good place to start is our blog and Twitter feed. You might also want to spend some time looking at one of the many (English language) news, opinion and citizen journalism websites on Sri Lanka, including for example, Groundviews, Tamil Guardian, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, or Colombo Telegraph, to name but a few.
- In-depth reports about the war and human rights violations: if you are interested in digging a little deeper about the war, or wish to know more about a particular human rights issue, there are a number of substantive reports that can be accessed online. These include the findings of major UN investigations (such as the ground-breaking ‘OISL’ report) as well as various materials by international and Sri Lankan civil society organisations, some of which we mention here.
- Reports about tourism and the military: there have been a number of good recent reports about the impact of the Sri Lankan military’s involvement in the tourism sector, as well as the broader effects of ongoing militarisation in war-affected areas. These include reports by the Society for Threatened People’s, the South Asian Centre for Legal Studies, and by People for Equality and Relief in Lanka and the Adayalaam Centre for Policy and Research.
One of the main reasons that we do not advocate a boycott of tourism to Sri Lanka is that we believe further isolation could cause harm to many of its most vulnerable citizens – depriving them not only of socio-economic benefits, but also of opportunities to exchange information with outsiders. The flipside is that we believe there are many ways in which tourists can proactively engage with ordinary people in ways which are positive and productive.
An important thing you can do as a tourist to Sri Lanka is to simply talk to people about their situation. Ask them how they feel about the war, about their views on the government (past and present), or about relations between ethnic communities. This has to be done with a certain degree of care and sensitivity. Your role here is not to judge or to educate (Sri Lankans know far more about their situation than you do), but to listen and share information.
Be aware that you need to be conscious of the safety and security of those who you talk to. Discussing sensitive subjects – particularly in war-affected areas of the country where widespread surveillance is carried out by the army, police and networks of civilian informants – can result in people getting into trouble if those conversations are overheard. While there may be little risk to you, the government of Sri Lanka being generally reluctant to cause problems for foreigners, you should always think about the risk to others.