Ethical Tourism in Sri Lanka

The problem


Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most beautiful countries, and a booming tourist destination. It is also the site of some of the worst atrocities of the 21st century.

We are not opposed to people visiting Sri Lanka. Indeed, we think much good can come of such visits and that some harm could result if Sri Lanka were to become further isolated. But given the very disturbing human rights situation there, we don’t think anyone should take the decision to visit Sri Lanka lightly.

This campaign is designed to help you, the tourist, make informed choices; to explain when your spending might end up benefitting human rights abusers or contributing to a worsening of the human rights situation, and to provide advice about how you can mitigate against those risks and support ethical tourism in Sri Lanka.


Don’t holiday with war criminals or human rights abusers

The Sri Lankan armed forces, along with members of the current and former regime, are responsible for some of the most appalling human rights violations in recent history. Multiple investigations by the UN have documented how, during the final stages of the war in 2009, many tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed after the humanitarian ‘safe zones’ in which they had been encouraged to gather were repeatedly shelled by advancing government forces.  Despite credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity – charges also levelled at members of the defeated LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’) – no one has yet been brought to justice.

Despite the end of the fighting, serious human rights violations – including extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual violence, abductions, arbitrary detention and land-grabbing – have persisted. These abuses, and the culture of impunity that enables them, are a result of the lack of accountability for what happened at the end of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war. This means that despite the recent change of regime in Sri Lanka, the root causes of oppression and repeated mass violence remain intact.

Today, the armed forces and other human rights abusers are deeply embedded in the tourism industry and poised to benefit from your spending.We believe it is the duty of the ethical traveller to ensure they are not supported, and to deny the military the financial resources with which they have been able to maintain a tight grip over civilian life, particularly in the war-affected north and east of the country.

In order to help tourists to live up to that ethical duty, we have compiled a list of tourism ventures that we think tourists should consider avoiding. It includes, most importantly, ventures that are owned by, or have financial links to, the military or other individuals believed to be complicit in grave human rights violations. But it also includes those whose operations have been linked with specific kinds of exploitation (such as land grabbing), as well as those whose record is problematic for other reasons (such as because they are involved in the white-washing of human rights abuses).

Infographic - The Sri Lankan Military Owns (2018)


Causes for concern

The infographic below provides an illustration of the some of the key ways in which tourism ventures might be a cause for ethical concern. It is important to understand that a particular venture might fall into more than one of these categories, and that the gravity of the ethical concern may vary significantly from case to case. Our objective is to help you to identify the issues, and ultimately to make an informed choice of your own.

Tourism in Sri Lanka has been vastly developed since the end of the armed conflict in 2009. As well as helping to reinforce the presence of the military (in areas where they have begun to operate tourism ventures), tourism has frequently been used by the government as part of its strategy to distort the past and to deflect attention from ongoing human rights violations.

Infographic - Tourism in Sri Lanka Causes for Concern (2018)


Making ethical choices

Planning a holiday to Sri Lanka is in each case a personal decision and we don’t claim that any particular trip to Sri Lanka is ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’. This is because we recognize that, on the one hand, no trip to Sri Lanka is without negative consequences – they all support the current regime to one extent or another, even if it is just through airport taxes – and that, on the other hand, only the most isolated of tourists could visit Sri Lanka without providing some sort of social benefit.

The resources in this website will help you understand both the negative and positive impacts of your trip and how, with thought and planning, you can better manage them.

Mar 18, 2014

It has been an emotional day. At about 1:30 am Sri Lanka time Father Praveen and Ruki Fernando were released without charge.

This is fantastic news and a testament to the power of a joined up campaign involving virtually everyone who had ever met either of them, and many many hundreds who haven’t. But this is far from the end of the story.

Jeyakurami is still in detention, and we have heard troubling reports of other arrests, not to mention the many hundreds routinely held under the draconian and unfair Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Moreover this should in no way be seen as magnanimity by the regime. Their appalling and libelous statement, since taken down, clearly showed that they intended to keep them locked up for some time and were subsequently forced to backtrack. There is no way that the arbitrary detention of two blameless activists for three days, without access to legal counsel, or anyone at all until the very last day, can be spun as anything other than an outrage. It was an action clearly designed to send a message and terrify the human rights community into silence, and if we turn away now then it will work.

Therefore it is more important than ever that we push for a strong resolution from the Human Rights Council calling for an independent international investigation. The draft resolution currently circulating is much improved, and does do that, but it doesn’t call for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which enabled this, and so many other, violations. Above all though, the Government’s actions over the last few days must cause a strengthening, not a weakening, of the text.

Above all we must not forget Jeyakurami and the many others like her. We will be in touch tomorrow about what direction that campaign will take.