The economic hit of harassment: The female tourist experience

By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya

Harassment, especially street harassment, has been a widely discussed topic in Sri Lanka during the past few weeks. Leading up to International Women’s Day, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), together with the Colombo Municipal Council, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, and Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation held a public exhibition titled, “Does She Travel Safe?”

The exhibition created a dialogue on harassment in Sri Lanka, with many coming forward to relate their experiences.

While this dialogue was going on, however, the Sri Lanka Tourist Police arrested a 36-year-old in connection with the recent harassment of a female US tourist in Mirissa. Sadly, this was not the first incident reported of a tourist being harassed or assaulted Down South.

According to data collected by Groundviews, the Sri Lanka Tourist Police received complaints from 11 locations including Galle Dutch Fort, Weligama, Ella, and Nilavali Beach. The Tourist Police Division also documented an incident of flashing in Hikkaduwa, two incidents of assault in Weligama and Galle, and three incidents of rape in Nuwara Eliya, Moragoda, and Batticaloa. These were incidents reported in 2018 alone.

According to Police Tourist Division Officer in Charge Chief Inspector of Police Prabath Vidanagama: “With increasing tourist arrivals, it has been noticed that harassments reported related to tourists too, are increasing.” He added: “Tourism is one of the main deciding factors of Sri Lanka’s economy and therefore, maintaining a reputation of tourists’ safety is a must for the sustainability of the tourism industry.”

While some Sri Lankans tend to dismiss harassment of women as “part and parcel of life” and are quick to defend the country when incidents of tourists being harassed or assaulted are reported, it’s important to look at the effect harassment can have on the country’s tourism industry.

Tourism in Sri Lanka

“Tourism is number three in terms of revenue in the country but there is potential of becoming number one very soon,” said Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) Chairperson Kishu Gomes, speaking to The Sunday Morning Business last week.

According to the SLTDA Monthly Tourist Arrivals Report, 252,033 tourists entered the country in February, of which the majority of 54% were from Europe, while 37% were from Asia and the Pacific. Growth has been seen over the years, with 235,618 arrivals documented in February 2018, 197,517 arrivals in February 2017, and 197,697 arrivals in February 2016.

While the monthly reports do not categorise tourist information based on gender, the SLTDA Annual Statistical Report does.

In 2017, of the 2,116,407 arrivals documented, 54.9% were male and 45.1% were female. Regions like East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe show majority female tourists, while South Asia shows a significant majority of male tourists.

In 2016, 2,050,832 arrivals were documented in Sri Lanka. Of this, 54.7% were female and 45.3% were male.
In addition to statistics that show an increase in arrivals, Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the top country to travel to in 2019 and Sri Lanka Tourism late last year launched “So Sri Lanka” as its tagline, replacing “Wonder of Asia”.

Several other measures have also been taken to promote tourism in Sri Lanka and one would think the country truly deserves the top spot on Lonely Planet’s list. But one could also question this, observing the issues faced by female tourists to Sri Lanka.

Experience of tourists

In order to understand what travelling in Sri Lanka is like to foreign tourists, The Sunday Morning Business reached out to female tourists who visited the country at least once.

Sevki, a Croatian national, said she had visited Sri Lanka in 2018 and had faced harassment. “I’ve travelled in a public bus twice with a friend. Both times, the buses were crowded and some men repeatedly kept trying to touch my chest and private areas,” she shared.

Sevki added: “One man ejaculated next to me, saying words I didn’t understand,” explaining that her complexion may have made the man think she was Sri Lankan.

Jessica*, a Sri Lankan living in England, also shared her experience during a holiday she took in 2018, saying: “I am not used to extreme hot weather anymore so I have to always wear clothes that are a little lighter. I was wearing a skirt and a strappy top. Men, on numerous occasions, would catcall and make uncomfortable comments like, ‘oh look at that piece’, etc.”

In a post in 2017 titled, “Women watch out – Sexual Harassment in Negombo” on TripAdvisor, a German national shared her experience in the country, saying: “My sister and I were sexually harassed by a guy on a motorcycle in a small street near the Negombo beach. He touched us and came back twice on his motorcycle. Only our screaming stopped him from doing anything worse.”

On the same thread, another user posted: “A female friend of mine went to dinner after being offered by a friendly local family she had met. At the end of the meal, the kind old uncle offered to walk her home safely to her hotel and attempted to sexually assault her at the end of their street!”

Sri Lanka’s tourism competitors

There are numerous incidents of harassment reported by tourists online and they paint a picture of the situation that needs addressing in the country. While Sri Lanka is a fast-growing tourist destination in the region, how do we compare to other countries in Asia?

“I’ve been to Malaysia and it was the most civilised country I’ve been to in Asia. I was ashamed to say I’m from Sri Lanka, a country where so many men misbehave. I wore very short clothes and small tops – not a single word from anyone on the streets,” Jessica said of her visit to the country.

Thailand too, is a popular destination in the region, and in 2016, Asian Correspondent reported: “Police in Thailand’s Eastern Gulf Coast town of Pattaya have expressed concern over the recent spate of sexual harassment and robbery cases carried out by ‘gangs’ of transgender women in the popular tourist destination.”

In a 2015 list of “11 Worst Countries for Solo Female Tourists: Sexual Harassment and Rape” published by Insider Monkey, Indonesia (Gili Islands) was ranked 11th and India was ranked first in the list.
In January, Vietnam Net reported: “Ha Long struggles to curb harassment of tourists.” However, the report was regarding vendors who harassed tourists with overpriced goods, and didn’t cover sexual harassment.

While it isn’t fair to say that Sri Lanka shows some of the highest amounts of sexual harassment of tourists among destinations in the region, it is clear that incidents like the one reported in Mirissa recently don’t place the country in the best light, especially in comparison to neighbouring countries.

Tourism Police

Partly driven by these issues, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) is launching 20 new tourist police units, which will add to the existing 11 units. The Mirissa Tourist Police Unit was opened on Friday, 22 March, and is the pilot implementation of the project.

“This is the first time in history where a unit was constructed using the convertainers concept and it has all the necessary facilities such as office area and accommodation,” said Vidanagama. He added: “The total cost involvement for this unit is nearly Rs. 5 million…It was sponsored by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.”

According to Vidanagama, 20 destinations that are popular among tourists have been identified for the project and the units will be set up in the future. In a press release, he explained: “Establishing a safe environment for the community in Sri Lanka through maintaining law and order is the main objective of Sri Lanka Police.

“Similarly, it is the duty of the Police to ensure a safe environment for all foreign tourists who travel in Sri Lanka.”

Education and awareness

While the Tourist Police Division is taking steps to increase tourists’ access to the necessary authorities, SLTDA is taking steps to increase awareness among the citizens of the country about the importance of creating a tourist-friendly environment, again partly due to the harassment faced by female tourists.

“The moment the word sustainability is heard, the connection your mind makes is to green initiatives and wildlife, but there is another aspect to it, which is a tourist-friendly environment,” Gomes said, when asked about initiatives taken by the SLTDA to address the issue of harassment of tourists in Sri Lanka.

His focus was on educating citizens of the country to take on the initiative to create a tourist-friendly environment. “This is a national matter,” Gomes said, explaining that if a tourist is harassed in Sri Lanka, society should be ashamed of themselves and do something about it.

“Rather than pointing fingers at the Police, if they can, they should go to these areas, talk to these people, and disseminate information via social media telling these culprits not to do this.”

The Police, he said, can’t be expected to do all the work when it comes to dealing with harassment of tourists in Sri Lanka. Gomes explained that the Police can go to locations where complaints have been made and apprehend the culprits who will then be taken through a legal process. However, the Police alone can’t create a safe and friendly environment for tourists. This requires public support.
Awareness should be raised among society as well as those directly related to the tourism sector.

“By talking to three-wheel drivers, hoteliers, hotel associations, etc., you can create that level of awareness where they will understand the consequences of such behaviour and through that, make it possible for these incidents to not recur,” Gomes said.

Other initiatives

Besides awareness campaigns, which Gomes said the SLTDA will continue to focus on, there are other initiatives aimed at creating a tourist-friendly environment in Sri Lanka. Licensing is issued for tourism-related services like accommodation, restaurants, spas, adventure services, and tour guides. The Online Tourism Business Licensing Service (OTBLS) allows for the downloading of forms, application for licenses, as well as license renewal.

In July 2018, SLTDA also launched the country’s first-ever tourist-friendly three-wheel or tuk tuk service. The “Tuk Tuk” logo helps tourists identify these three-wheelers, the drivers of which have received special training.

Impact on economy

While harassment is a social issue that needs to be addressed, in the context of tourism, it can have a huge impact on the country’s economy.

According to the SLTDA Statistical Report for the year, in 2017: “The total revenue collected from the listed sources amounted to Rs. 11,767.6 million, compared to Rs. 10,630.5 million collected in the previous year (without the revenue from conservation forests)”.
With growing revenue from the sector, it is vital that we address any issues that could affect the number of tourists that visit Sri Lanka. While the initiatives taken by the Sri Lanka Police and the SLTDA are commendable, The Sunday Morning Business asked tourists what measures authorities should take in helping them feel safer as female travellers in Sri Lanka.

Sevki shared: “The Police should be trained to help people who report sexual harassment instead of laughing and victim-blaming. A lot of my Sri Lankan friends have gone through the same thing. I was shocked at how people who report these cases are treated.”

There is also the need for awareness, as Kishu Gomes explained. After all, society itself needs to change in Sri Lanka, so that people understand the gravity of harassment, whether it is physical or verbal, and the impact it can have on the country’s economy.

“We have a culture where, when an incident takes place, a large percentage of Sri Lankans point fingers at various people – like the tourist police – but what are they doing to change the behaviours of their own people as good, intelligent citizens that love the country?” Kishu Gomes questioned, highlighting the need for the country’s citizens to take responsibility and do their share in making Sri Lanka a tourist-friendly destination.

Day by day, Sri Lanka’s popularity as a tourist destination in the region increases and the Lonely Planet ranking has positively impacted this.

The country also boasts of a large number of tourist attractions, a rich history and culture, and unmatched hospitality. However, these will all be for naught if society as well as relevant authorities don’t address the issue of harassment foreign as well as local females face in the country and take steps to eliminate it.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of the individual