The tourism industry of Sri Lanka is pivotal to the country’s economic development. In many developing economies it has become one of the main sources of income which had contributed greatly to the socio-economic progress. UNWTO defines tourism as “a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon which entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes” Through tourism many small business enterprises emerged with people having the ability to manufacture their own products and sell them to tourists thus gaining an opportunity to build a better life. Tourism is also an opportunity for countries to gain international acclaim and fame to its national assets and cultural heritage.
[Image excerpted from: Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority : http://www.sltda.lk/statistics]
According to this illustration, the lowest number of arrivals was recorded at a time when Sri Lanka was under a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. The period of 2008-2009 it could be assumed that the civil war and intensified fighting in Sri Lanka prevented tourists from arriving in the country. After 2009 there has been an exponential increase in the number of tourist arrivals. From 2015 to 2016 there has been a positive increase in the number of tourist arrivals with seasonal variations.
The Tourist Board Annual Report of 2015 provides insights into how public sector institutions derive income from tourism including: direct, indirect taxes, tourism development levey, embarkation tax, Income of tourism development authority, entrance fees to botanical gardens, zoos, museums, parks etc. In 2015 the recorded income from tourism had amounted to Rs. 8282.7 million compared to Rs 7476.4 million in 2014 recording a 10.8 % increase. This means that the trend is a positive development. Attractive destinations for tourists are most of the coastal cities of our beautiful island. In the current age and in the future tourism will play a major role in the development of the country creating many opportunities for skilled employment.
Tourism in Thailand
According to The World Travel & Tourism Council Report of 2015, the direct contribution of tourism to Thailand’s GDP in 2014 was 8.6%. This was forecasted to rise by 3.4% in 2015, to rise by 6.7% from 2015-2025 and 11.7% on 2025 predicting an exponential increase. The total contribution of tourism to the Thai GDP is 19.3% and total contribution to employment in the country amounts to 14.1 % of the total population. These numbers suggest that tourism is a burgeoning industry in Thailand as well and it had indeed brought in great revenue to the country.
The dark side of Thai tourism is also well known to the rest of the world. There is dangerous organized transnational crime which originated in Thailand such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and organ trafficking. It is extremely difficult to trace the origins of certain transnational crimes. Drug trafficking for example, probably originates in Central Asia and journeys through Afghanistan and smuggled into Thailand. [Also noting that drugs could enter Thailand from other regions as well such as South America] Human trafficking is another dangerous crime that has been a contributing factor to the underground sex tourism of Thailand. Women and girls from regions with economic disparities are compelled or coerced into engaging in sex tourism which has also resulted in the high numbers of STD infected peoples in the region.
According to the UNAIDS Gap Report of 2016, there are 440,000 people in Thailand living with HIV. The Asia and the Pacific region have the largest number of people living with HIV, with Thailand accounting for approximately 9%. The transgender people in Thailand have been a heavily vulnerable group with 12% of them already infected with HIV. In Thailand, after the Gender Equality Act was passed in 2015, prohibition of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people was established. This crucial legislature could have led to the positive impact on diminishing the stigmas surrounding gender. Arguably it also makes it possible to document and research homosexual and transgender sex workers, make records of the nature of sex workers and provide them with HIV and STD related support ensuring access to healthcare.
The Dark Side of Sri Lankan Tourism
Thailand is definitely not a standard of tourism that Sri Lanka should aspire to because of sex tourism, HIV and drug problems particularly when Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is also not that ‘squeaky clean’. Sri Lanka is now plagued with the mafia of commercial sexual exploitation of children or commonly known as ‘child sex tourism’. In Sri Lanka, there is no coherent body of laws on Gender Equality and regulation of commercial sex workers. Thus it is extremely difficult to document and research into the numbers of those engaged in sex tourism to even provide assistance on healthcare and psycho-social support. Legalization of prostitution is a topic considered ‘taboo’ much less ‘subjected to debate’. Thus prostitutes suffer at the hands of employers, customers and also law enforcement authorities. Documenting Gender-based Violence among sex workers has also been a difficult task due to the lack of proper legislature and sensitivity of law enforcement authorities on the subject.
Most vulnerable group in sex tourism in Sri Lanka are said to be young male boys. Tourists come to Sri Lanka seeking the company of young male boys or ‘beach boys’ who are often coerced into performing sexual acts resulting in traumatizing experiences for them. However policy-makers, law enforcement authorities cleverly snuck these vices under the carpet pretending it is not a big issue. With the exponential increase in tourism related activities in Sri Lanka the issues of sex tourism in Sri Lanka should not be taken for granted. We do not know the numbers of sex workers among the transgender community nor can we help them without a proper body of laws recognizing non-discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation in Sri Lanka. Hence the dark side of Sri Lankan Tourism is not addressed.
Thailand’s sex tourism has gained international attention. Many NGOs and like-organizations have conducted wide research on the subject and has made coherent action plans to combat the vices of this trade. The awareness programs have been successful to the extent that in many European countries if you told your neighbour you vacationed in Thailand- they might have many impertinent questions to ask or if you are a girl going on vacation they might have important advice to give “do not travel alone”. Criminal gangs and mobbing of tourists are common occurrences in Thailand. Tourism industry of Thailand is heavily stigmatized ensuing these bad practices [drugs, crime, prostitution]. Thailand is definitely not a standard that Sri Lanka should aspire to.
Taking into consideration that sex tourism in Sri Lanka is also carrying out their secret under-ground activities, there are dangerous tendencies that threaten the lives of many [such as gender-based violence and HIV among sex workers, undocumented and covered up in secrecy] Sri Lankan policy makers must take the appropriate steps to investigate in to the issue. At an age of exponential growth in the tourism industry and Sri Lanka progressively becoming a middle income economy it is also time for change in areas of laws on Gender Equality, legal protection for sex-workers and regulation mechanisms on sex workers to control such activities. It is time to advocate for more awareness of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and to promote ethical tourism.