Responsible tourism in Sri Lanka

Tourism is still in a pretty raw state in Sri Lanka, for several reasons. There was the disastrous impact of the 2004 Tsunami which killed an unimaginable 38,000 people as it tore along the coast, wiping out village after village. Following this tourists were not only nervous to return, but there was little infrastructure for them to return to at a time when people needed us to visit most. Also, the war between the Tamil Tigers and the government forces kept the north of the country closed to visitors for years until it finally ended in 2009. Most recently, in April 2019, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks targeting churches and hotels killed over 250 people, many of them foreign nationals.

After the tsunami and the civil war, Sri Lanka began hosting guests once again. Villages have been rebuilt, but some development has been controversial, with allegations of international tourism companies buying up large tracts of land post tsunami at very low costs, and ousting fishing families from the land they had just seen destroyed, particularly in the Kalpitiya region. And with the development of resort beaches, fishing becomes nigh on impossible, which is their main source of income. Referred to as ‘land grabbing’, although land and sea grabbing would be more accurate, it remains a highly controversial issue today and as the northeast opens up its coastline post war, many fear the same will start happening there. The terror attacks of April 2019 have lead many international governments to issue travel warnings and it remains unclear for how long they will remain in place, and what impact they will have on tourist numbers to Sri Lanka.  

People & culture

The abuse of children for sex tourism is a reality in Sri Lanka, particularly on the southwest coast, Kandy and in the capital, Colombo, with most activity taking place in bars, brothels and even on the beach. And at worst, it has been known for some brothels to be disguised as children’s homes. It is thought that there are tens of thousands of children being exploited for sex tourism which is, horrifically, a growth area. It is worth noting that these minors should never be described as 'child prostitutes' or 'child sex workers'. They are not working. They are children - therefore they are, in pure and simple terms, being abused and raped. Shocking language, but this is shocking stuff, and even worse, it is part of tourism. Children are often trafficked internally, unaware that they are being led into the arms of abusers. Although girls are sexually exploited, the UN states that it is young boys who face greater abuse by foreign sex offenders. It is usually the most vulnerable in Sri Lanka who are exploited in this way, with some children being taken from orphanages for this purpose. According to the UN, the Sri Lankan government is starting to act upon this, but progress is still slow. Consequently, Sri Lanka is on a ‘Watch List’ with regards to its policing and enforcement of child trafficking.

What you can do
Always report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. The Code (short for “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”) is an excellent point of contact for this purpose.

Andreas Astrup, General Manager of The Code: "We can all play a role in keeping children safe, whether at home or abroad. If you see a child at risk of sexual exploitation while traveling, please take action and either report your concern directly to authorities or visit The Code's website to find the best reporting line."

Wildlife & environment

The use of elephants in tourism in Sri Lanka is coming more and more under the spotlight, although it is not black and white, more of a (pun intended) grey issue. Elephant trekking, or elephant riding is a big pull here, often taking place at sanctuaries or elephant orphanages, such as the famous Pinnawala one. Elephant rides have traditionally been seen as a way of getting closer to nature while simultaneously conserving this endangered species. However, more and more travelers and tour operators are starting to question the ethics of riding these wild animals, as well as the methods used to train them. And the more questions that are asked about elephant riding, the clearer it becomes that not only is this not an ethical means of conserving elephants – it is, in fact precipitating their extinction in the wild. The more elephants that are taken from their natural habitat to supply temples, sanctuaries and camps, the smaller their chances of survival. This is one reason why, with a few specific exceptions, we have stopped promoting elephant rides at Responsible Travel.

The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of all the Asian elephants and seeing them roam freely in the wild is one of the most exciting things to do in Sri Lanka. Our advice is to research your interaction with elephants in Sri Lanka very carefully and, if in doubt, just stick to seeing them in the wild. And there are plenty of them in the wild. As the national animal of Sri Lanka, they have clung onto their populations of wild elephants, with most of them protected in national parks such as Yala, Udawalawe, Wilpattu and Minneriya.

Read our guide on elephant trekking and Pinnawala here.
John Beswetherick, Managing Director of one of our leading Sri Lankan suppliers, Tikalanka (UK) Ltd: "We stopped promoting Pinnawala Elephant ‘Orphanage’ in Sri Lanka in 2005 when we were approached by Born Free Foundation and became supporters of their global animal welfare campaign, Travelers’ Animal Alert. We always state our negative position regarding Pinnawala in our replies and most customers decide not to visit once they are made aware of the animal welfare issues, thankfully."

Daniel Turner, Born Free: “Elephants used for elephant back safaris may be overworked and subject to strict training and management, leading to physical and mental suffering and injuries, as discussed above. They are especially prone to injuries to their backs – in particular blisters or cuts caused by howdahs (wood or metal seating). Walking regularly on hard surfaces with a heavy load can also increase the risk of foot problems.”

Sea turtle hatcheries

Sea turtles nest along Sri Lanka's southern coast, and there are a number of projects offering the opportunity to observe the nesting mothers, to protect the eggs or release the tiny hatchlings. However, it is very rare that these projects are ethical - or that they contribute to conservation in any way. Turtle encounters are poorly managed, and can result in dozens of tourists crowding around the mothers, shining torches and with cameras flashing. In the worst case scenarios, the mother may abandon her nest and return to sea without laying her eggs.
Sea turtle hatcheries involve moving the eggs to a safer spot on the beach, labelling them, and looking out for emerging hatchlings. These can be a good means of turtle conservation in areas with high levels of egg theft. Some hatcheries even pay for eggs, to prevent them from being sold on to restaurants, which is of course a controversial practice. At Responsible Travel, we do not promote any hatcheries which use tanks for keeping hatchlings before release. These are breeding grounds for diseases and bacteria, they can result in deformities, and in general, the tanks are used to please tourists, not to conserve sea turtles. For more information, see our stance on sea turtle hatcheries.

Responsible tourism tips

Being hassled by beach vendors on the Golden Mile between Beruwela to Bentota on Sri Lanka's south-west coast was starting to become a major problem, leading to the creation of more and more gated communities to keep the vendors away from tourists. Until the UK charity, The Travel Foundation, helped create a more amicable relationship between hotels and vendors through their Linking Local Communities and Tourism Scheme. As well as facilitating a more formal outlet for the beach operators through training, product development and teaching them communication skills to alleviate the hassle factor, the charity has got 11 hotels to embrace this scheme, meaning that vendors and hotels are happier, and local people are able to earn income from tourism, creating a more equitable system for everyone. Entry fees to national parks are quite high in Sri Lanka, but given that this is a fundamental way for them to protect their extraordinary landscapes and wildlife, try not to resent this. Indeed, by going out of your way to support them, and incorporating it into your vacation budget, you are showing the government that tourism within protected areas is thriving, thus encouraging more funding, employment opportunities and so on. And yes, local people do pay a lot less, sometimes nothing, to get into their national parks. It’s their country. Get over it. The north and northeast of the country are just starting to open up to tourism opportunities since the end of the devastating conflict with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 which had gone on for 25 years. It is a wonderful time to visit as it has not been overdeveloped like some parts of the southwest coast. Until recently, development there was not allowed over the palm tree line, but there are now signs of this rule having been broken by the big boys with bigger budgets. Hopefully, the tourism authorities will see wisdom and show themselves as leaders in a responsible and sustainable form of tourism development, especially with a view to such growing concerns as deforestation. The latest news is, for example, that US firm Subway, is to open 30 shops in Sri Lanka. Always dress and behave sensitively at sacred sites. Even if they are ruins. Because even though they may seem like museum pieces to you, they are extremely sacred to many. So, remember to take long trousers, skirt or sarong to cover knees and shoulders, and ideally you should wear white. You can pick up white garments in the market very cheaply. And take off your shoes. This applies to people’s homes too, where shoes are usually removed before entering. And be very sensitive about taking photos of sacred statues - posing with Buddha does not go down well at all. And you should not go into a Buddhist temple if you have consumed alcohol or meat. The latter might be harder for tourists, but it is worth noting, just as a reminder of the spiritual nature of these places. Case in point : having a tattoo of Buddha is enough to have you deported. Diving is a growing sector in Sri Lanka in the southwest, but also developing up in the northeast too. Make sure you are going out with an accredited diving operator, be sure to check how new the equipment is, when it was last renewed, if they have enough oxygen and what their evacuation plans are. However, typically, dive operators are responsible at protecting the marine environment here but always ensure to use a diving company that has a good track record in environmental awareness. You will see coral or shells for sale, and so for obvious reasons best to stay clear, as you will not know if they have been sourced sustainably from these fragile shores. Also, scams involving gemstones are common so you really need to buy from an expert if you want the real thing. Whale watching is a growing sector in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, especially around Mirissa and Galle, so be careful whom you go out on the seas with, as it is important for you and the whales that your whale watching experience is a responsible one. See, for example, if the trip is accredited by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) and if it has a responsible tourism policy. At the moment there is almost no government regulation in place with regards to whale watching, so the more people who ask for responsible whale watching, the better. See our guide to whale watching for more details. Sri Lankans eat with their hands. Tourists are always offered cutlery but if you are traveling like a local, use only one hand, the right one, only use the finger tips to mix the food, not the whole hand, and don’t lick your fingers afterwards. There are usually sinks for washing before and after meals. If you are asked to give money for rebuilding lives after the tsunami, and this still happens, be careful to inform yourself about where that money is actually going and judge your chosen charity carefully. Accredited Sri Lankan charities don’t collect on the streets.
Wendy Moore, Destinations Programme Manager, The Travel Foundation:
“Tourist hassle nearly always comes from inequality, and in Sri Lanka there is significant inequality between host and guest. So, our aim is to integrate positive interactions back into the tourism economy by training beach vendors thoroughly, so that it is a win win for everybody."

Ishara De Silva Managing Director of our supplier, Srimal Plantation and Ayurveda Hotel:
“There is a lot of antique smuggling going on, especially since the war ended when all the old temples and houses were opened up again. Be very careful when buying antiques as it is illegal to take any of these things out of the country. If you buy a reproduction, that looks like an antique, the sales person you are buying it from must give you a document from the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka, to show that it is not, in fact, an antique and therefore fine to take abroad”.

John Beswetherick, Managing Director, Tikalanka Tours (UK) Limited:
“Be wary of buying any hardwood products such as ebony, and also animal products which should be CITES approved” (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival).
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: chuvipro] [Tsunami house: Amir Esmann] [Sea turtle hatcheries: Alexander Solovyov]