Chris Neubert

Not Like Bangkok


Watching the ocean from Unawatuna beach is an intimidating experience. This small strip of land on the southern coast of Sri Lanka is the last bit of solid ground that touches the Indian Ocean before it reaches Antarctica. It is intimidating both because of the power conveyed by the vision of endless water, and because of the knowledge that this very ocean can be deadly. Less than a decade ago, in 2004, the ocean washed over this entire beach and the village beyond in the Boxing Day Tsunami. 35,000 people were killed across the entire island in just moments.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to tragedy. The country endured a 26-year civil war that ended just three years ago, after a brutal government offensive that drove the rebel Tamil Tigers to the edge of the sea. Thousands of civilians were killed in the process. There is no accurate count of the number of war dead, as an increasingly authoritarian government prefers to minimize any conversation about those final months of the war.

Sri Lanka is also my home, at least for the next few months. I recently moved here to Kandy, a hill city in the central part of the country, to complete a nine-month research project funded by the Fulbright program. This is my second visit to Sri Lanka. I spent one semester here in 2006 as an undergraduate, living with a family and attempting to learn the language and understand daily life.

If you are completely unfamiliar with Sri Lanka, there are a few things you should know. Aside from tsunamis, war, and beaches, this island nation is home to eight World Heritage Sites, a mix of natural landscapes, colonial forts, and ancient Buddhist holy sites. The oldest known human-planted tree exists here, the Sri Maha Bodhi, which grew from a branch of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was planted here in 288 BCE. Sri Lanka is the physical embodiment of what many people would call paradise, and the travel guide Lonely Planet certainly agrees. The company has named Sri Lanka the number one place to visit in 2013.

It is not an original idea to label Sri Lanka a paradise, but the label usually comes with a qualification. The Lonely Planet designation described Sri Lanka as a “cut-price paradise.” A previous Fulbrighter in Kandy has written a book titled Not Quite Paradise. Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman at the end of the civil war, dedicates two chapters in his book The Cage to the theme of paradise: “Paradise Found,” followed immediately by “Paradise Lost.” It’s telling that he does not conclude his 350-page account of the 2009 mass killing of civilians trapped on a strip of beach between two armies “Paradise Regained.” His last chapter is simply titled, “Post-mortem.”

Ultimately, Sri Lanka is the perfect example of how the relentless pursuit of paradise can trump our sense of humanity. Following the war, there were calls for the government to address the accusations of human rights abuses. Gordon Weiss published his account, Channel 4 in the UK produced a documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” and the world representatives of peace, namely Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Desmond Tutu, called for international lights to shine on the devastation.

So why the deaf ears? Well, this is paradise, after all, and everyone wants a piece of it. Weiss describes the immediate rush to bring about a sense of prosperity after the war in his post-mortem account:

Hired by the Sri Lankan government, the London-based international public relations firm Bell Pottinger worked to gloss over the nasty business of war. The New York Times gave Sri Lanka top billing as the best holiday destination for 2010 [...] As tourists flowed back to Sri Lanka in large numbers, the tourism authority rebranded its flagship slogan from ‘A land like no other,’ to ‘A land of small miracles.’

This is where tourism becomes an ugly agent of exploitation—when it is used to whitewash reality, to dress up the past and make it presentable. Ultimately, that is what the “tourism industry” is designed to do. Make a place more appealing. Cover up the warts and reveal the beaches. Turn a land like no other into a land of small miracles just by saying it’s so.

* * *

In many ways, I am intimately familiar with how the tourist industry intrudes to present a pretty picture, because I grew up in a place heavily dependent on tourist revenue. Starting when I was six years old, my dad and I have taken a trip every year from our home in eastern South Dakota to the Black Hills of the west. Over the last twenty years I've seen the tourist industry change, and I've seen my relationship to the place change in reaction to that industry. The constant barrage of billboards advertising where Custer slept, which casino has the best returns, which mini-golf resort you want to take your kids to became increasingly jarring as I became more aware of how this land was appropriated from the Sioux, who continue to struggle with the consequences of U.S. imperialism just 50 miles from the edge of the Black Hills.

For several years in the ‘70s, my dad worked at the South Dakota Department of Tourism, briefly leading the department during a period of transition between administrations. Back then, South Dakota was promoted as the “Land of Infinite Variety”—a phrase that evokes a sense of excitement or adventure or at least something new and different at every turn. But apparently infinite variety is too much for the average tourist to handle. Today the favored tagline of the South Dakota tourist industry is “Great Faces, Great Places,” an obvious nod to the area's original tourist attraction, Mount Rushmore, and also a phrase that is so reductive it’s offensive.

And that, right there, is cultural commodification. To go from being a land of infinite variety to being a great place with some great faces cuts out a lot of history and culture that, admittedly, wasn't really being promoted anyway. Someone even wrote a “Great Faces, Great Places” jingle that implores visitors to “come find adventure, come find fun.” People should be allowed to have fun, of course; the problems begin when the state decides that it's more important for visitors to have fun–and reflects that importance in policy- and budget-making–than it is to address, for instance, the continuing implications of the treaty violations that deprived the Lakota Sioux of their land less than 150 years ago. Commodification is a problem not just because tourism turns culture into a commodity, but because in the process of doing that, a lot of context and history gets deleted—contexts and histories that continue to have very real implications on the people who live in these so-called tourist destinations.

Tourists don’t necessarily need to understand all of that context as a precondition of travel. It’s a lot to lay at the feet of casual vacationers looking to escape the problems in their own homes for a few weeks. But anyone who travels should recognize that the act of tourism also makes the actor complicit in acts of oppression, and these are acts of oppression that cannot be undone by adding the words eco- or sustainable in front of the word tourism.

Lonely Planet likes to bill itself as the guide for the sustainable and responsible tourist that offers a more complete picture of their destination. Hey, that's why I bought their guide to Sri Lanka and, to their credit, they do spend several pages discussing the civil war, the tsunami, and the environmental issues Sri Lanka faces, and these topics are scattered throughout. There are recommendations for a variety of very good local books and films. The authors even risk shattering the image they've created in the previous pages of a Sri Lanka filled with peaceful, welcoming Buddhists by mentioning the militant, nationalist Buddhist monks that formed their own political party in 2007. Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated here in 1959 by a Buddhist monk who believed he wasn't Buddhist enough.

This is not the image of Buddhism that most Western travelers have in their heads when they come to spend time at serene meditation centers in mountain forests, nor is it the image the Sri Lankan government would like conveyed. However, when Westerners ignore these realities about a place, as ugly as they may seem, they are creating unrealistic expectations about what that place is like and projecting those expectations onto its people, its land, and its culture. The result is that more context, more history, gets deleted or modified to support that tourist-friendly image.

Right now, all of this context is relegated to the very end of the guidebook, starting around page 268, and everything is discussed in past tense: the war is over, it has ended, and you, traveler, don't need to worry about it. There is one small mention in the timeline of Sri Lankan history that “legitimate Tamil aspirations and grievances remain.” Well, that's good to know, but I have a feeling those grievances will be gone in the next edition of Lonely Planet: Sri Lanka.

Which gets at what is so fundamentally disturbing to me, that the lack of any meaningful reconciliation in the wake of the massacre of up to 40,000 people in Sri Lanka is completely whitewashed to present a fantasy country that Western tourists can visit guilt-free. Here are some excerpts from the very first page of my guide:

The Undiscovered Country

You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Countless scores of travellers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of war and challenges such as tsunamis have kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.

But now—as you’ve probably heard—the war is over and Sri Lanka’s looking up. If you’ve ‘done’ India, grown blasé about Southeast Asia or simply want to explore a place whose appeal and pleasures are myriad, then it’s time you dropped in...

...And then there are the beaches. The beaches! Dazzlingly white and all so often untrod, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds...

...Sri Lanka is spectacular, it’s affordable and it’s still mostly uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.

Where do I begin? With the very first three words the authors implicate themselves, and the reader, in an act of colonialism. Sri Lanka is not “undiscovered.” It is not hidden “in plain sight.” It is home to more than 20 million people who have not been sitting around waiting for hordes of white tourists to discover them. In fact, the 500,000 Sri Lankans who were displaced during the 26-year war might find it oddly convenient that the Western world has just now decided to discover them, three years after thousands more of their friends and neighbors were indiscriminately killed by both sides during the end of a brutal conflict that claimed even more lives.

And yes, the country may be looking up, but there are also people in very powerful positions who would like all Sri Lankans to collectively forget the last 30 years completely. When a local newspaper published Lonely Planet’s announcement online, one of the more telling comments read simply “beware of white vans,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to the dozens of journalists who have mysteriously gone missing in recent years. This darker side gets me back to my initial reaction when I heard about the Lonely Planet designation: too soon! Maybe it will always be too soon. The massacre at Wounded Knee, SD, happened over 120 years ago, and I still wouldn’t want to picnic there.

“And then there are the beaches.” Right here is the root of the problem. Once the land becomes an object of transactional desire, then everything related to it–the people who live there, the homes they've built, the livelihoods they've fostered–becomes either an object of or an obstacle to that desire.

Naomi Klein visited Sri Lanka after the tsunami to write about the implementation of disaster capitalism in a fishing village in Arugam Bay, on Sri Lanka's eastern coast, and her experience became a chapter in her book The Shock Doctrine:

...underneath the rubble and the carnage was what the tourism industry had been angling for all along–a pristine beach, scrubbed clean of all the messy signs of people working, a vacation Eden. It was the same up and down the coast: once the rubble was cleared away, what was left was...paradise.

It’s a funny kind of paradise that depends on the displacement of the people who live there in order to achieve complete paradise status. But if my Lonely Planet is accurate, the transformation worked:

Lovely Arugam Bay, a moon-shaped curl of soft sand, is home to a famed point break that many regard as the best surf spot in the country. If you're not a surfer, there are plenty of other draws: the village is packed with beachfront guesthouses and restaurants and has a mellow, swing-another-day-in-a-hammock kind of vibe that's totally removed from the brash west-coast beach resorts.

There is no mention of the fishing boats or the fishermen that Naomi Klein met in 2005 that were such an obstacle to development in the region. I would suspect that most are probably gone, and what remains is that Western vision of paradise–no people, but endless sandy beaches and plenty of time to relax and reflect. It's the perfect whitewash, and Lonely Planet dutifully performs its role to distort, or at least obscure, the reality of the place.

Klein also notes that the Lonely Planet guidebook she had with her in 2005 described Arugam Bay as “the next Phuket: great surfing, beautiful beaches, funky hotels, spicy food, full-moon raves...‘a hot party spot,’ according to Lonely Planet.” The reference to the Thai resort island would later prove telling.

Her Lonely Planet was written just before my first visit in 2006. It was a precarious time for Sri Lanka–the post-tsunami recovery was lagging and a cease-fire agreement signed between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the government in 2002 was crumbling. There was a brief window, however, when these war-torn areas were open to tourist traffic, and Lonely Planet jumped at the chance to promote the region. It is, after all, their job to point tourists in the direction of the hottest destinations, to tell them where the great faces and great places are, where small miracles can happen.

I recently reunited with the family I lived with for five months during my first stay. I asked them about the changes to Sri Lanka in the last six years, with the war ending and the economy growing, and tourism obviously came up. “It’s going to be the number one source of income,” my host brother said, “heritage tourism, though. Not like Bangkok.”

Not like Bangkok. I’ve heard this before, from another Fulbrighter recounting another conversation with her host family. It’s a very loaded statement. At the very least, it acknowledges that there are downsides to tourism: someone else got it wrong, but here, we're going to get it right. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about tourism in Bangkok. I’ve heard that backpackers like it and that Sri Lankan tourist leaders prefer a more upscale clientele. The rumors about the very active sex trade persist. Lonely Planet has reason to believe that some of its readers might feel “blasé” toward the whole region, which itself in an interesting reflection of the attitude that Lonely Planet and its readers take toward the developing world.

But if the goal is to avoid the pitfalls of unsustainable Bangkok tourism, then I would argue that a 325% increase in the number of people visiting your country within four years is not the way to do it. Yet this is exactly what the Sri Lankan tourist industry is aiming for: 2.6 million visitors in 2016, up from 800,000 this year.

The latest budget proposed by the President this month makes clear that this is the goal, and that my host brother is right and increasing income from tourism is a priority. Important infrastructure improvements continue to build up tourist areas in the South, while the war-torn areas of the North and East are left to the devices of private investors. There is one interesting inclusion in the 2013 budget that bans foreign ownership of land for tourist purposes. I have a suspicion that international investors will find a way around this rule, and that the intended beneficiaries of the law are not the displaced Tamils in the North, but rather wealthy Sinhala investors who see opportunity in devastation. It’s disaster capitalism, round two (or three or four, depending on your definition of disaster in Sri Lanka).

I also learned from my host family that a new tourist economy was booming and this time, it actually was in the North. Sinhala visitors, essentially the victors in the civil war, have begun traveling around visiting battlefields and bunkers. The Sri Lankan Army has opened these sites to a new form of war tourism, complete with signs in Sinhala only. This is how tourist commodification aids in dehumanizing the losers of a war in a post-war world. Combatants with legitimate grievances–worth dying for, in their minds–become a spectacle. Their battlefields become not memorials to the dead, but monuments to victory. Finally their lands are given over to the economic devices of the winners. To the victors go the spoils. This is the story of war, and tourism helps feed that story to the mass of non-combatants.

The need for this story is why the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred land to the Lakota, are now a “Shrine to Democracy.” It is why northern Sri Lanka will soon be a paradise of unspoiled beaches, accessible only because they've been cleared of violence. It's why Sitting Bull went on Wild West Tours after his defeat and why Tamil Tiger cadres leave rehabilitation camps and join the Sri Lankan national shooting team, all the while singing the praises of their shared President.

If this is the plan Sri Lanka is committed to, the south of the island will become a wealthy tourist destination while the far north will remain scarred and poor. This post-war boom will become just one more step in the cycle of inequality, conflict, hatred and violence that have plagued this country for far too long. More people, globally, would understand this if we weren't all being fed a commodified history every day.

Still, I can understand why Sri Lankans right now would be willing to ignore or at least defer questions about the ethics of tourism and press forward with expansion. This is a nation collectively holding its breath, waiting to see if the horrors of the last three decades are really over. Being called the top travel destination in the world gives the impression that, yes, the horrors are actually over and an era of peace and prosperity is dawning. There is an almost palpable fear in the country, that you can witness in conversations with Sri Lankans or reading the editorial pages, that continuing to dwell on past mistakes will cause their reappearance. That's definitely the idea that the current administration would like everyone to believe—talking too much about the past will damn the future.

The truth is much more complex. Sri Lanka has a history fraught with conflict between Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils over the last 2,000 years. Ultimately, this violent post-colonial period of war and death and violence will end, but it is not over yet. As long as there are unanswered questions about civilian deaths, as long as the state continues to favor one group of people, as long as journalists continue to be killed off or go missing, then the past is not yet the past and paradise is still just a fantasy.

* * *

So what about the non-combatants, the gawkers, those of us who did not participate in the wars two, ten, or one thousand years past—is it unethical to visit these places?

I would say, if your only goal is to go, seek some relief on a beach or mountaintop and return home, refreshed and untroubled, then yes, that does seem unethical to me. It seems selfish, at best, and there is probably an element of selfishness in every person that travels. Much of the Tamil diaspora, who are advocating a complete boycott of everything Sri Lankan, would fully agree with me here.

However I would also argue that the basic ideas behind the drive to travel–to know and see more of the world than your home, to experience the unfamiliar, to immerse yourself in difference–are fundamentally good, just ideas. It’s when we relegate those ideas to transactional relationships—I’m here, I’m relieved, I’m leaving—that the travel experience becomes problematic. I am not an anti-tourism advocate, but the critical question is, how do we make travel experiences less about transactions of desire? How do we make travel a transformative, and socially just, experience?

The first thing we need to do is re-imagine the global tourist industry as we know it. Back home in South Dakota, I also reviled tourists on occasion, and at times I very acutely felt my own place in the continued oppression of native people on reservation land. But there were also moments where I was so moved by something I sensed that I wanted to share with other people my own paradise experience. I believe that these moments are the starting point for a new, liberating tourism, where dialogue and understanding and shared experience can take the place of commodification. The former leads to the instant-gratification transactional tourism that we’ve practiced now for generations. I am hopeful that the latter can lead to a more enriching travel experience.

There are two stories that I can recall that lead me to believe that this sort of tourism is possible and not just me naively pursuing an out for all tourists. The first is a trip that I took with my dad to Wounded Knee three years ago. Wounded Knee right now is little more than a graveyard, a church, and a museum run by supporters of the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM was a militant activist organization that was very active in the ‘70s fighting for justice on the reservations, and also responsible for burning down the courthouse in my dad’s hometown. We wandered into the museum, probably the first visitors by mid-afternoon, and immediately a young man walked over to my 65-year-old dad and started telling him the history of Wounded Knee and AIM. For the next 45 minutes the two of them just talked, looking at pictures, wandering around the small rounded room that served as the museum, and developed a brief, but real, cross-cultural, cross-generational connection. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than what usually serves as a connection in the uneven fabrications of the tourism industry.

The other story that gives me some hope takes me back to Unawatuna. I went out that night with some friends to one of the cafe/bars on the beach, and as loud American music played in the background I watched the young kid of one of the European diners start to dance like crazy. After a few minutes he was joined by the son of the Sri Lankan owner, and the two of them, five years old maybe, just danced and sang and ran around like kids do–never able to really talk to each other, but having fun and creating a connection that isn’t a transaction. If nothing else, both of those kids might have an empathy moment later in life because of that night, where they don’t believe what they hear about a country and its people on television or in the newspaper because they danced with one of those people once. Ultimately, empathy is the greatest change agent, and the more genuine empathy we create, the better off the world is.

So I can’t just say “Don't come to Sri Lanka.” I don’t even believe it’s my place to say something like that, and my thoughts about tourism here vary with each new conversation I have. Here’s what I will say: if you do come, enjoy yourself and have an amazing time, but respect the place you’re in and understand the oppressive systems and structures you're supporting. We all deserve a vacation, but limit your damage and start doing something about these oppressive systems when you get back home.

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