Opinion: A conscious travel guide to Sri Lanka

NEW YORK — Many observers of Sri Lanka's conflict expected a rush of tourism following its end last year. And now journalists are tipping their hats in Sri Lanka's direction: in recent pieces, both The New York Times and Daily Candy have recommended the country as a go-to.

In fact, Sri Lanka made the top of the Times' list of travel destinations for the year. Why go? For Daily Candy, the reason is that “The civil war is mostly over, and Sri Lanka is now stable and safe — and as beautiful, tropical, and friendly as ever.” For the Times, Sri Lanka is a natural escape, a place where “elephants roam freely, water buffaloes idle in paddy fields and monkeys swing from trees. And then there’s the pristine coastline.” Both paint a picture of a hip and upcoming travel destination. This language of marketing tourism is all too common in travel writing and disconnects the country from reality.

Sri Lanka's civil war should not be dismissed as merely an event of the past. The Times writes, “While a few military checkpoints remain, vacationers can lounge on poolside hammocks under palm trees or snorkel in its crystal-clear waters.” Should tourists be encouraged to simply flock to the beaches of the north without knowledge of the thousands of civilians who are still trying to regain their livelihoods in an area that has been war-torn for decades? While many of the people who were internally displaced by the conflict have returned to their homes, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 108,106 civilians are still being accommodated in temporary camps. Furthermore, Sri Lanka continues to face conflict.

Recent events in the country’s politics — such as the arrest of opposition leader, General Sarath Fonseka, and President Mahinda Rajapakse’s dissolution of parliament — speak to a tense political situation far from being resolved. These realities are not mentioned in recent travel writing about Sri Lanka. Why should the promotion of tourism mean erasing the reality of the country?

There are many reasons to visit Sri Lanka, but the Times and Daily Candy got it all wrong. Instead of focusing on the rich cultural and historical context that makes a place like Sri Lanka worth visiting and learning about, they do little more than exoticize the country. We should ask ourselves, how can people travel responsibly to places like Sri Lanka? While many tourists do travel as a form of escape, it doesn’t mean that one should forget about the people who live in the places that one is fortunate enough to visit.

What I am suggesting is that tourists need to be conscious of where they are traveling to, have a desire to learn about a country’s cultures and history, and not merely treat their visit as an otherworldly experience. This does not mean that in getting to know the “real” Sri Lanka, tourists should attempt a problematic “live like the natives” approach. It's a hard line to straddle of course — but to some extent it's the effort that counts.

As a Sri Lankan and as someone who has recently been in Sri Lanka, I would advise tourists to use their travel opportunity to learn about the country’s history. Historic destinations include Sigiriya, Polonnuruwa and Anuradhapura, which are the ruins of some of Lanka’s ancient kingdoms. Here one is exposed to the impressive architecture of historic temples, palaces and frescoes from as far back as the 10th century B.C.

Outside of the capital of Colombo, the cities of Kandy and Jaffna have long been cultural hubs on the island with long histories worth learning about. In Sri Lanka’s up-country, the town of Nuwara Eliya is an important location of the country’s tea production. Here, visitors can learn more about the colonial legacy of tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

For tourists seeking beach destinations, I highly recommend supporting local guest houses during your stay. This will support the growth of local industry in beach and coastal towns on the island. The Nilaveli Beach in the northeast area of Trincomalee, Arugam Bay in the southeast or Unawatuna Beach in the southern area of Galle, are a few popular destinations.

As the north of the island and its people are inevitably still recovering from war, the local tourism industry is slowly regenerating. Travelers should be conscious and sensitive to the area’s history of conflict when traveling to the north, as people are still regaining their livelihoods in many northern parts of the island.

I am convinced that potential travelers gain more from realistic representations of the country of destination than hyped-up and exotified versions. This allows tourists to make conscientious travel plans within countries such as Sri Lanka.

Thanu Yakupitiyage is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gaining a masters in communications/media studies. She is a member of Lanka Solidarity, a multiethnic group conducting advocacy and outreach activities that promote lasting peace, reconciliation and political approaches to problems in Sri Lanka and its diasporas.