Most governments of the South and South East Asian countries have adopted tourism as a strategy for development. In the face of ever-declining terms of trade, international lending agencies with short-term interests have been urging these governments to diversify their economies to bring in much-needed foreign exchange. So, despite tourism's adverse long term socio-cultural effects, its over-estimated economic benefits seem to override all policy and planning decisions.
Tourism in its modern form developed only after the 1960's in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), although there have been many travellers to the island throughout ancient and colonial times. The Ceylon Tourist Board was set up in 1966 and the first Tourism Development Plan was drawn up in 1967. Between 1970 and 1979, tourist arrivals increased by 100% and again from 250,164 in 1979 to 407,230 in 1982. The growth of tourism since then has been very rapid, although there were clear setbacks from 1983 onwards due to the separatist war that has gripped the country for over 17 years.
The majority of the tourists to Sri Lanka come from Western Europe with Asia following in second place. Considerable numbers come from North America and Australia while the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eastern Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America register the smallest number of visitors. While the Sri Lankan government planned tourist resorts and hotels with elite tourists in mind, the sixties brought in the low-budget or the "hippie" tourist who wandered along the coast seeking quieter and cheaper places. They succeeded in persuading villagers to give them lodging for a few rupees, attempted to adopt the local lifestyle, and ate the local food. This was the beginning of the tourist experience of most resorts today - among them Bentota, Panadura, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna in the south coast, and Negombo, a town near the Colombo international airport. Mt. Lavinia, a suburb of Colombo, is popular, especially with gay tourists. I will be mentioning resorts primarily in the southern and western coastal areas of the country where tourism is most developed, although inland areas have not been completely spared. The eastern and northern areas have been inaccessible to tourists since the 1980's due to the ongoing separatist war in these regions.
When tourism was first imposed on villages, rich outsiders bought up the beachfront land for a pittance and put up hotels before the villagers could realize the value of the land. The more resourceful villagers who had land or houses near the beach opened their doors first, as guest houses or restaurants, while the rest had to search for other opportunities, such as providing unlicensed lodging, eating houses, sale of tourist garments, handicrafts and other wares. Within the course of a few years, drug peddling, illegal gem businesses, petty trade, guided tours and prostitution offered additional income. Women entered the tourism industry in limited capacities, as guest house owners, petty traders, and makers of clothing, handicrafts, and other wares.
However, women's ways and means of reaping benefits from tourism were limited as the social constraints imposed on them limited their choices. For poor women, sometimes the choice was merely between poverty and prostitution, which translated into either remaining poor or risking social sanctions. In the context of prostitution, it is important to mention that male prostitutes, gigolos or younger males offering their services to older women, is a growing and lucrative business in the tourist areas. However, the most injurious among the ill-effects of tourism is the explosion of child prostitution. It is estimated there are over 5000 child prostitutes in Sri Lanka today, most of them boys in the 7 to 16 age group. Although young girls do work as prostitutes, prostitution of girls is not as organized a trade as it is of boys. In a society where strong patriarchal values keep women and girls under control, and men and boys have greater freedom of movement, it is perhaps inevitable that prostitution of boys is the faster developing trade in the sex industry. With few legal controls and trivial punishments given to offending tourists and their local collaborators, child prostitution is breaking all limits.
Prostitution is illegal in Sri Lanka and has not become as developed an employment source as it is in Thailand or the Philippines. Female prostitutes operate undercover with a network of exploitative agents, pimps, and taxi drivers who take a significant share of their earnings. The big hotels in Colombo and other cities have sophisticated systems of providing their clients with these services. Prostitutes, originating from the villages, are often from the poorest strata of society. They may have been abandoned by their husbands and left to feed three or more children. They may be young women who have been subjected to rape or sexual abuse and then shunned by society. These women have been attracted to the tourist areas for the business it brings and operate with the help of the pimps of the area. They often rent rooms in small guest houses or hotels. School girls are also lured into this work for the money.
Women seem aware of the threat of AIDS and other social diseases and have regular medical checks and treatment. The "beach boys," or young males who work on the beach as tour guides and organizers of boat rides and other entertainment, are often also the providers of prostitutes. One example is Rani, a 36-year old mother of three young children, who is currently a resident in a tourist zone. Her husband is a fisherman and they used to live in her mother's house in the early years of her marriage. Due to her husband's alcoholism, they had to move out to a place of their own. Subsequently, her husband left her to fend for herself and the children. The only option left for her was to sell tourist garments on the beach, but the money this brought was hardly sufficient for a family of four. She had little alternative but to get into prostitution in order to supplement the family income.
Another example is Shehnaz who is a 28-year old Muslim woman from inland where tourism is hardly known. She was a victim of rape at the age of 16, after which her community treated her as a social outcast. She left her village to find work in the city as marriage was unthinkable for her. She was introduced to the profession by a "friend" and she prefers to work in the tourist areas as they are more rewarding financially and socially. She has lived in the area now for almost three years in a guest house away from the beach.
Young males taking to prostitution as a profession is a relatively recent phenomenon in Sri Lankan society. It is a direct by-product of tourism and heavily dependent on it for opportunities.Young males age 18 and above take to this profession as a lucrative way of making quick money while they can. They are aware of the risks involved, of becoming carriers of STD and HIV/AIDS viruses. Some are married with children. These gigolos service older women and/or homosexual foreigners. They are generally referred to as "beach boys," hangers-on on the beach. They act as tour guides, providers of entertainment and as general jacks-of-all-trades in the tourist industry. Their big opportunity comes with a personal relationship with a foreigner who will bank roll them for a while.
These men have a trained eye to pick out older females in search of a male consort. These women often travel in pairs and seek younger males for the duration of their stay. Some of these encounters are brief; others last longer and are more rewarding. In general the male prostitutes are aware of the short term nature of the relationship and try to make the most money during that time. Some have succeeded in striking longer liaisons with the much awaited foreign trip at the end. Many young males have been taken along by older women, some have got married to the women and others return after long sojourns. The homosexual partnerships operate in much the same manner. The difference may be that they seem to be relatively longer-lasting relationships.
Every tourist season the partners return for their vacation. In such cases the foreign partner is known to have given expensive gifts of motor cars and cycles and improved the prostitutes' lives by buying houses and property for them. The prostitute then maintains part of the house for the partner for the vacation. One example is Nimal who is a youth of 23, a school dropout from a low-income family. He has no illusions about finding steady employment anywhere. Most of his life has been spent on the beach, which has given him his livelihood as well as companionship. He has been lucky in finding a "sudda" ("white man" - a common term for a tourist), who likes to keep him as his friend. His white partner has come every year now for four years and invested money in a house for his family with the condition that part of the house be kept for his use. He has promised a trip to his country, Germany, soon, which Nimal eagerly awaits.
Another example is Nath, who is 25 years old. He has had a better education but due to his drug habits cannot find employment anywhere. His income depends on personal relationships with older foreign men or women. He can't be choosy. His clients have been older women mostly but they were short term. He is waiting for that big break of a longer affair which would improve his financial status and life. Sexual Exploitation of Children In January of 1996 the Sri Lankan government succeeded in amending the penal code to punish anyone who has sex with a minor with a possible 5 to 20 years in prison - the same sentence given to pimps. In 1994 - 1995 half a dozen disbelieving foreigners from Germany, Britain, France, Sweden and Switzerland were arrested for having sex with minors but none were sentenced to prison.
Sri Lanka is renowned as a pedophile's paradise and their numbers increase every year. Even when the normal tourist arrivals slowed to a trickle during the war years and times of terrorist attacks, these visitors were unconcerned. Sri Lanka is well-known in Europe as an easy and cheap source of young boys, and one can find names and addresses of agents and children in publications, particularly in some gay magazines. Child prostitution is a result of a combination of socio-economic factors among which poverty is a main cause. A child prostitute is defined as a child under the age of 18 years who is used for the sexual satisfaction of adults. These children have been and are sexually abused by local pedophiles and other child abusers. Research studies have shown that in city slums and some suburbs of Colombo, "protectors" set up young boys in rooms and shops for sale or use. With tourism, young children from villages in the southern and western coastal belt, as well as in inland areas, have been lured into sexual slavery for a fee - usually insignificant gifts or a few rupees for sexual favors to (often) older men from mostly western countries.
Children are also sexually exploited for the pornography industry. A new dimension is added with the spread of HIV/AIDS, where children are considered "safe and clean" compared to adolescents and adults. Stories of foreigners buying expensive gifts, houses and properties for their "friends" are rampant and some parents remain silent when children bring home money, gifts, or clothing. Some parents are ignorant of their activities and where they spend their time. Sometimes abandoned children or children who have a parent who is a drug addict or an alcoholic or is unable to support the family are found wandering on the beach and are approached by a pedophile or a recruiter. Some children are forcibly taken to recruiters by relatives or parents and bullied into cooperating. Eventually, older boys are discarded in favor of younger children. Some are taken abroad (deaths have been reported in a few cases while several children have returned and continued in the trade).
Pedophiles arrive in the country with the necessary names and addresses. Some come on long-term vacations, i.e. 4 to 6 months at a time, others for 2 to 3 weeks. The long term vacationers, mostly middle aged, rent houses on the beach or respectable suburbs and their activities go unnoticed until a crisis occurs. They approach parents and sometimes schools of the area with money and substantial donations. Some have been known to run orphanages for boys. They are exposed only when a complaint is made by a runaway. One example is Upali, who is 15 years old and still a student, although education is his last concern. He lives in a tourist area with his unmarried mother - a drug addict who is at present living with a man whose wife has left him. They have rented the shack on their yard to a "Swami" who wears orange robes and doles out religious jargon to the gullible. Perhaps an escaped convict, his real business is to provide children for the trade. Upali was his first recruit. Upali claims he can earn at least Rs.50 ($1) a day. He gives some to his mother and spends the rest on food and entertainment with friends. His mother is aware of what he does. She says the money is necessary for their expenses.
Another example is Ruan who is 7 years old and has been used in pornographic films. He was first recruited by an older boy for a German pornographic video. The German stayed in their area for over a month, renting a house. The older boy rounded up five or six boys and took them to this house. He says he had to touch and perform sex with the boys in front of the camera. The room was lined with mirrors. They were given a bag of gifts and paid Rs.1000 ($20), which the parents collected. Mila tells a success story. Coming from an inland town, he got into the business at the age of 10. He is blessed with out-of-the-ordinary good looks and a hunky figure. By age 13 he had learnt the tricks of the trade and knew he had to play his cards cleverly if he was to get out of the routine. He was lucky, therefore, to meet a German business magnate with whom he spent two weeks travelling. Mila cleverly avoided discussing payments, knowing very well that if he did so it would be just another transaction. By the end of two weeks he had succeeded in his task, told his companion his story, of his struggling mother and two sisters. Today at 18, Mila is no longer poor. He has invested his money, built his mother a dream house, given his sisters in marriage and looks forward to the future.
While more boys are in prostitution perhaps due to the relative freedom of movement they have, girl children are exploited wherever available. One example is Shani, who is 13 years old and roams the beach daily. She does not attend school and has never done so. She has four older brothers who are also on the loose, fending for themselves. Her father, a laborer, does not make enough money to feed all of them. She was in the business from the age of eight and works through agents. She earns Rs.50 ($1) each time. She gives some of the money to her mother, who has so far not queried where the money comes from. Another example is Menaka who is 7 years old and is parentless. With her angelic looks, she is much in demand by impotent men who believe they will be cured through oral sex with her. She works practically every day. But the money each day is a mere pittance given to her by the agent. Her relatives, who only want the money, are unconcerned about her physical or mental health. Menaka has no friends, no smile on her face, and her wide eyes register only fear. tourism is exploitation.
Macro evaluations of tourism usually stress the economic gains it has brought the country, leaving out the social and cultural effects of disruption to value systems and life patterns. Socially, the problems posed by tourism are complex. In Sri Lanka, tourist resorts have come up in areas where people have been living in poverty. Luxury hotels are suddenly opened in front of their eyes with consumer articles never before seen by them. They see people sunbathing or strolling in the shopping areas, buying expensive trinkets. It is natural therefore that they are tempted to take part in it and make some money out of it. They are also aware that employment opportunities through official channels are limited and have to seek other illegal and demeaning means to profit from the industry. The fact that female and male prostitution is increasing and children are being pushed into sexual slavery proves that other means of livelihood within the tourist industry are unavailable to them or are not as profitable.
Contrary to the view upheld by governments of tourism as a "force of peace" and cultural exchange, tourism, like other modern industries, is based on profit making and exploitation. Tourism in developing countries such as Sri Lanka begins by exploiting remote destinations for their exotic nature and cheapness. For profit and entertainment, it depends on a series of unequal relations between the powerful and powerless, the wealthy and poor, and men and women. Insensitive to cultures and value systems of others , it creates social havoc and irrevocable damage to peoples who are not equipped to handle such abrupt changes in their lives. Sexual exploitation of women, children and youth, trafficking and slavery are inevitable links in this chain.