Fisherfolk Out, Tourists In

Sri Lanka's tsunami reconstruction plans displace devastated coastal residents to make way for tourism industry expansion.


This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the July/August 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Two days after the south Asian tsunami struck last December, as thousands around him were grappling with its devastating impact, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was airlifted from the roof of his holiday resort in southern Sri Lanka by the country's air force. Kohl is, of course, among the most elite of tourists, and his privileges are not representative of all tourists. Nonetheless, that aerial exit is symptomatic of the tourist industry's alienation from the local community. His easy flight away from the devastation, at a time when official relief supplies were still to reach the majority of victims, was an early indicator of the interplay between tsunami relief and the tourism industry. Kohl was barely airborne, and the waves barely receding, when plans were already afoot to ensure that the beaches of Sri Lanka were cleared of fisherfolk and rendered pristine for a new wave of tourists.

"Natural" Disasters?

Right from the start, global attention to the tsunami was no doubt heightened by the fact that tourists were among the victims. Reporters conducted their share of riveting tsunami escape interviews in airport departure lounges: first-rate, first-person accounts with first-world tourists. This is not the first time viewers in the rich countries have been plied with images of "natives" being overwhelmed by natural disasters, passively awaiting international humanitarian relief and rescue. Some parts of the globe are just scripted into tragedy and chaos; first-world television screens are accustomed to their loss, their displacement, their overwhelming misery. Against this backdrop, the tales of tourists offered a more newsworthy break from stories that simply echo yesterday's news reports about locals caught up in floods in Bangladesh or mudslides in Haiti.

But while being located in the trajectory of tsunami waves or monsoons is a given, the acute vulnerability of countries like Sri Lanka, Haiti, or Bangladesh to natural disasters only appears spontaneous. It is the socio-political landscape that determines the extent of exposure to adverse impact from such natural disasters. The political economy of exposure to natural disaster is disastrous for those made vulnerable--but not natural. For example, coastal mangrove forests would have contained the fury of the tsunami waves, except that they've been rapidly destroyed in recent years to make way for resorts and industrial shrimp farms. (See "The Tsunami and the Mangroves," page 14.)

Also see The Tsunami and the Mangroves in this issue.

Defining that vulnerability as natural is, however, important to the tourism industry, whose job it is to produce exotic destinations through comparison and contrast. The devastation of repeated natural disasters is simply the "native predicament" in places like Sri Lanka, and one of the principle drives behind western tourism to the global South hinges on that predicament. Tourism often is, after all, a quest for a departure from the everyday of western suburbia--but in a neatly packaged module that insulates the visitor from the actual risks of the locale. Trafficking in that balance of otherness and insulation is the task of the tour masters.

The tsunami penetrated that insulation to some degree. However, even through the bloodletting of the last two decades, tourists visiting Sri Lanka have been remarkably insulated from it all: both from the civil war and from the country's impoverished social and economic circumstances. In fact, on the tourism industry's map, Sri Lanka is an adventure zone whose attraction lies at least partly in those circumstances, which make it a cheap vacation spot, a low-cost listing in a travel catalog of exotic but consumer-friendly destinations.

What does tourism do?

Does the tourist industry simply feed off a pre-existing socio-economic predicament and perhaps even mitigate it, or does the industry exacerbate that predicament and entrench a country like Sri Lanka in an itinerary of peripheral economies served up for tourist consumption?

The argument is not that tourism per se is bad for Sri Lanka. Clearly the broader tradition of tourism and international travel has had a mixed, complex history. For the many who came, surfed, littered, took photographs, bought sex, batik shirts, or barefoot sarongs and left, there are others who ended up engaged by newly discovered solidarities. Even the interface with colonial exploration was double-edged. As political scientist Kumari Jayewardene and others have shown us, we have always had a line of itinerant travelers who washed onto our shore as tourists of one sort or another, only to develop more fundamental commitments to local communities--commitments that then fed into, or even helped catalyze, traditions of dissent and struggles for justice that have had enormous reach in our collective histories.

Such solidarity aside, tourism can be a significant source of revenue, employment, and infrastructure development. It also has a range of indirect effects since tourism generates demand in many sectors; every job created in the tourism industry is said to result in almost 10 jobs in other industries, with enhanced demand in areas like agriculture and small industries, a whole spectrum of service-sector employment, and so on--the kind of thing that excites Central Bank policymakers, not to mention the middlemen who profit from those batik shirts and barefoot sarongs, from the increased demand for sex work and other informal sector labor. At a micro level, the jobs generated by the industry have enabled some financial autonomy for some sections of the working poor. Even when pay and working conditions are exploitative, this is an autonomy that may have particular significance for women and other groups who yield less financial decisionmaking power in the "old" economy.

Yet this baby came with a lot of muddy bath water even before the tsunamis washed in. The growth it has generated has often been of an unbalanced kind that worsened the country's financial vulnerability with little accountability to local communities. As they discovered through the shifting fortunes of the ceasefire, the post-9/11 drop in international travel, and recessions in distant lands, communities that work in the tourism industry have a heightened dependence on a fickle, fluctuating transnational market. The majority of the jobs tourism creates in the formal sector are service-sector jobs that are exploitative, badly paid, seasonal, and insecure; these problems are replicated many times over in the industry's large informal sector, ranging from prostitution to handicrafts. Its untrammeled exploitation of the coast has created unsustainable demands on the local environment that have had particularly bad impacts on coastal ecology. Equally pernicious, it has transformed more and more public land such as beaches into private goods, fencing out local residents.

Reconstruction for whom?

The tragedy is that many of tourism's downsides may be exacerbated by the tsunami reconstruction plans. From Thailand to Sri Lanka, the tourist industry saw the tsunami through dollar signs. The governments concerned were on board from the outset, quickly planning massive subsidies for the tourism industry in ways that suggest the most adverse distributive impact. Infrastructure development will be even further skewed to cater to the industry rather than to the needs of local communities. Within weeks of the tsunami, the Alliance for the Protection of National Resources and Human Rights, a Sri Lankan advocacy group, expressed concern that "the developing situation is disastrous, more disastrous than the tsunami itself, if it is possible for anything to be worse than that."

The tsunami arrived at a critical moment in the recent history of Sri Lanka's political economy. Beginning in the late 1970s, Sri Lankan governments of both major parties followed the neoliberal prescriptions to cut tariffs and quotas, privatize, and deregulate more slavishly than many other Asian states. In 2002, the then-ruling center-right UNP issued a major blueprint for continued liberalization, "Regaining Sri Lanka," under the rubric of the "Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans" (PRSPs) that the World Bank and the IMF now require. But public opposition to these policies has intensified over time. In 2004 a center-left coalition won election on an anti-liberalization platform. Once in office, however, the chief party in the coalition appeared unwilling to truly change direction, and the "Regaining Sri Lanka" plan is still very much on the table.

Now, activists are warning that many of the plan's liberalization proposals will be revived and pushed through with little public dialogue and debate, given the emergency powers the government has given itself under cover of tsunami relief and reconstruction. In January, for example, the government revived a plan for water privatization that had earlier been tabled after public opposition. Official reconstruction plans are being prepared by a newly created agency, TAFREN, which a recent statement by a coalition of over 170 civil-society organizations describes as "composed entirely of big business leaders with vested interests in the tourist and construction industries, who are completely unable to represent the interests of the affected communities."

Proposals announced by TAFREN and by various government officials call for the building of multi-lane highways and the wholesale displacement of entire villages from the coast. Coastal lands are to be sliced up into designated buffer zones and tourism zones. The government is preventing those fishing families who wish to do so from rebuilding their homes on the coast, ostensibly because of the risk of future natural disasters; at the same time, it's encouraging the opening of both new and rebuilt beachfront tourist hotels.

The plans are essentially roadmaps for multinational hotel chains, telecom companies, and the like to cater to the tourism industry. Small-scale fishing operations by individual proprietors will become more difficult to sustain as access to the beach becomes increasingly privatized and fishing conglomerates move in. The environmental deregulation proposed in the PRSP will open the door to even more untrammeled exploitation of natural resources. None of the reconstruction planning is being channeled through decision-making processes that are accountable or participatory. Ultimately, it looks like reconstruction will be determined by the deadly combination of a rapacious private sector and government graft: human tragedy becomes a commercial opportunity, tsunami aid a business venture.

Not unpredictably, even the subsidies planned for the tourism industry in the wake of the tsunami are going to the hotel owners and big tour operators, not to the porters and cleaning women who were casual employees in hotels. Many of the local residents who were proprietors or workers in smaller tourism-related businesses, now unemployed, are not classified as tsunami-affected, so they are denied even the meager compensation they should be entitled to. The situation is much worse for the vast informal sector of sex workers, souvenir sellers, and others whose livelihood depended on the tourism industry. If the tsunami highlighted the acute vulnerability that accompanies financial dependence on the industry, the tsunami reconstruction plans look set to exacerbate this vulnerability even further.

A needs assessment study conducted by the World Bank in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank and Japan's official aid agency pegged the loss borne by the tourism industry at $300 million, versus only $90 million for the fishing industry. The ideological assumptions embedded in an assessment methodology that rates a hotel bed bringing in $200 a night as a greater loss than a fisherman bringing in $50 a month have far-reaching consequences. With reconstruction measures predicated on this kind of accounting, we are on a trajectory that empowers the tourism industry to be an even more dominant player than it was in the past, and, concomitantly, one that disempowers and further marginalizes the coastal poor.

Travel and displacement

Much has been made of the unsightly fishing shanties that will not be rebuilt. Instead, fishing communities are going to be transformed into even more unsightly urban squalor, their residents crowded into "modern" apartment complexes like the sardines they may fish. However, this will be further inland. As they sit on the beach watching the ocean loll onto Lanka's shore, tourists will enjoy the coast in a sanitized, "consumer friendly" environment. Ironically, they may even be sitting in cadjan cabanas, a nostalgic nod to the cadjan homes of fishing communities of the past--a neatly consumable experience of the exotic without the interference of a more messy everyday.

But perhaps this is the new everyday that is proposed: the teeming hordes in designated settlements, a playground for tourists elsewhere. It's a product of the mercantile imagination--the imagination of tourist industry fat cats who will be raking in the tsunami windfall. With the building of planned superhighways, tourists will be able to zoom from airport to beach, shopping mall to spa, while the people who lived in these regions will become less mobile as they are shut out from entire stretches of coastal land. If tourism is about carefully planned displacement from the ordinary for a privileged few, the crossing of boundaries for recreation and adventure, here it is tied to the forced displacement of fishing communities and the instituting of new boundaries that exclude and dispossess.

Vasuki Nesiah is a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice and co-editor of lines magazine, where a version of this article first appeared. lines is an online magazine that engages with the political spaces of Sri Lanka and South Asia more broadly. It seeks to provide a forum that inspires and challenges, a forum for voices of dissent, including perspectives and issues marginalized in mainstream debates. Access lines at