Focus/Spotlight

Tuk-tuks, tourists at loggerheads

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

A photograph of a foreigner with a notice pasted on his backpack that read “three-wheeler epa” in Sinhala, which means “no to three-wheelers”, is being circulated on social media.

The foreigner had reportedly been angered over the three-wheeler mafia and alleged abuse of passengers by some three-wheeler drivers.

Even though it wasn’t only three-wheeler drivers that were undisciplined on roads but other motorists as well, the incident caught the attention of social media users as it was a rather unusual one involving a foreigner with a notice pasted on his bag. They were curious to find out whether these sorts of incidents negatively impact the local tourism industry.

To determine the credibility of the photograph, The Sunday Morning contacted Sri Lanka Tourist Police (SLTP) OIC Prabath Vidanagama.

“We haven’t received any complaint of that nature to any of the Tourist Police branches in the country, and there was no trace of where and who took that picture. Without any evidence, it’s difficult for us to take action,” the OIC explained.

He further noted that there were incidents where some similar situations were staged in order to be filmed by people after obtaining permission from respective authorities. However, he stressed that the outcomes of these fabricated situations in public places that are filmed could not be predicted.

“We don’t know how people interpret these incidents,” he added.
Referring to a recent incident that took place in Kandy where two foreign couples were taken into custody while shooting a movie, OIC Vidanagama said the Police had not been informed of it but that it was later revealed that they had taken permission from the Sri Lanka Film Corporation (SLFC).

In a similar incident in Colombo near the Dutch Hospital, a Police informant had told the SLTP that there was an ongoing shoot nearby which depicted a three-wheeler driver harassing a foreigner, and when investigated, it turned out that permission had been given to them by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), the OIC stressed.

Difficulty in determining cause

The outcomes of these incidents cannot be predicted, neither can the damage to the industry, and therefore, after discussing the issue with the SLTDA, the SLTP came to an understanding that in such situations where the tourists were given permission to film in locations in Sri Lanka, the transcript should be sent to the SLTP, OIC Vidanagama stated.

Similar incidents had also taken place for different purposes and to accomplish different objectives, making it difficult to determine the real reason the foreigner resorted to sticking the “three-wheeler epa” notice on his backpack.

Over the last few years, isolated incidents had been reported in the media pertaining to how tourists, especially females, were subject to different kinds of harassment, and harassment by three-wheeler drivers in particular was highlighted on several occasions.

However, in 2017, new regulations aimed at disciplining three-wheeler drivers were introduced. Regulations were passed under the Motor Traffic Act and apply to owners and drivers of motor tricycles (three-wheelers) for hire which transport persons. More than a million three-wheelers are registered in Sri Lanka.

When contacted, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) Chairman Kishu Gomes told The Sunday Morning that there were various stories circulating social media, pointing out that some of them could be old while some could be new.

“We have a process in place where these incidents are to be reported to the Tourist Police and they are investigating these cases seriously regardless of the nature of the incident, and the culprit is being punished through the legal process.

“We have Tourist Police in most areas of tourism in the form of independent police stations or embedded into regular police stations to tackle these issues. All the cases reported to us are dealt with,” he added.

Meanwhile, speaking about the incident, All Island Three-Wheeler Operators Association (AITOA) President Lalith Dharamasekara said that the incident was alleged to have taken place in Galle and, as a person who’s been in the industry for decades, he was not ashamed to see such incidents as it was not the first time such an incident had been reported.

“It’s the rulers who should take the blame because we, as three-wheeler operators in this country, helped governments formulate the relevant laws and regulations to formalise the three-wheeler industry, but they failed to implement those laws and regulations,” he said.

These types of incidents occur due to the lack of proper laws, and especially the Southern Provincial Council had formulated the relevant rules but didn’t implement them, ultimately making drivers and commuters face difficulties, he stressed.

Dharmasekara also noted that there are different types of people engaged in the industry, and that no one could blame the “vehicle” (three-wheeler) as it was the fault of that person.

Instead of placing blame on the vehicle, the Government should take immediate action to regularise the industry as there are millions of people who depend on this industry, Dharamasekara noted.