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Opinion: A conscious travel guide to Sri Lanka

There are many reasons to visit Sri Lanka, but none of them include it being a hyped-up version of a country free from strife.

Workers prepare an elephant to march on opening night of the annual Kandy Esala Perahera festival occurring for the first time since the end of the country's civil war, July 27, 2009 in Kandy, Sri Lanka. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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.