Swelling numbers of Sri Lankans who for decades were unable to visit a large swathe of the island are behind a boom in “war tourism” that is helping stimulate the economy in the country’s north. While locals welcome the money, there are also concerns about the impact on traditional Tamil culture.
Every day, coach loads of visitors make their way up the main A9 road that leads to a part of the country that for decades was controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Tamil rebels fighting for an ethnic homeland. Following its victory in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government has been steadily encouraging domestic tourists to make a trip northwards to see sites such as a former LTTE prison, a destroyed water-tower that has been turned into a tourist site and the city of Jaffna at the very tip of the country that for the last 15 years could only be visited by air or sea. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed his son, Namal, to head this effort.
On a recent morning in Killinochi, former capital of the LTTE and where the authorities have built a victory monument, a young corporal from the Sri Lankan army was manning a souvenir shop set-up next to a fallen water-tower, destroyed by rebel troops as they pulled out. His shop sold T-shirts bearing the words “Reawakening Killinochi” and Sri Lankan army notebooks. “In the holiday season, we can get up to 10,000 visitors a day,” he claimed. “We have already had seven buses stop today.”
Not far away, buses were also pulling up in a muddy lane alongside former LTTE base that housed the rebels’ prison. There was not a lot to see; a dozen small cells with squat toilets that still emitted an unpleasant odour, but the stream of visitors were eager and keen. “I wanted to see what it was like,” explained one woman, who had come from the south.
At Elephant Pass, the often fought-over stretch of road that marks the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, visitors were posing for photographs in front of a battered bulldozer and the memorial to celebrated soldier, Lance Corp Gamini Kularatne, who in 1991, fought off a potentially devastating LTTE offensive by hurling himself at the oncoming vehicle and destroying it with two grenades. He was killed instantly and was subsequently awarded the nation’s highest honour for military valour.
“For 35 years there has been a problem with the LTTE. I came here when I was 12. Now I am 57 year-old,” said one of the tourists, S Wanigasakar, who had come on a coach from a town near Colombo. “Now, there is only one flag. Everyone is Sri Lankan.”
The government says it does not keep track of the numbers of domestic tourists, unlike those of foreign visitors which in 2010 totalled more than 650,000, a new record. “There are bus loads of local people from the south visiting the north and the war affected areas. But unfortunately there are no records of the numbers,” said Udayakumara Liyanage, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka tourism promotion bureau.
The new visitors to the north are undoubtedly bringing much-needed money to an area where people still complain about unemployment and lack of opportunities, despite the government’s undertaking to develop the area. In places such as Jaffna and Killinochi, there are new guesthouses and hotels, new restaurants and new shops.
But the influx also has a potential downside. Tamil politicians have warned about the potential impact on traditional culture, especially in places such as Jaffna, as tourists from the south arrive. They have also voiced fears over what they allege are government plans to encourage Sinhalese from the south to relocate to the north and east, areas that have traditionally been Tamil. “The rapidly changing demography of the north of Sri Lanka is escalating,” said a report submitted to the government by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a political party which won recent local election in Vavuniya and Jaffna
For now, however, the tourists keep coming and the locals try and focus on the positive side. At a market on Jaffna’s Hospital Road, storekeeper selling grapes, jam and drinks, said: “[The trade] is now almost all from tourists. It’s a good business.”
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