Hospitality or Hostility: The Flip Side of Sri Lanka's Tourism

Itís been more than fifty years since the last colonial invaders left Sri Lanka and toddled back to their home shores to leave us in peace. Fifty years in which to regain our pride as a nation , as an independent and sovereign country with cultures and traditions to be proud of. But it doesnít seem long enough to let us forget our old servility towards the foreigner. We have the reputation of being a hospitable country , full of welcoming smiles and other signs of friendship. But how wide the smile is seems to depend on the color of your skin.....and whether or not youíre from Sri Lanka.

There has long been an indigenous type of apartheid practiced amongst the hospitality industry in this country. Not a day goes by without a Letter to the Editor from some enraged local , dumbfounded by the discrimination he or she has encountered at a Sri Lankan hotel. There are as many Sri Lankans as foreigners who want to explore this marvelous land, but sometimes the remnants of our post-colonial hangover kicks in . Thereís automatic genuflection for any tourist from abroad, but general disdain if you are from here.

I myself have my own story to relate. I was once planning on spending the day at a hotel down south with some friends , some of them white, some of them Asian. One of the Sri Lankans happened to be have a British name , and having been educated all of his life in that country, spoke with a British accent. He phoned the hotel and booked a room for us with no problems....but on arrival we were told by a bland faced front desk manager that the hotel was full. After much loud haranguing to no avail , we barged in and started lounging around a pool. A pool , that I might add, wasnít very full at all.

Other friends and colleagues of mine have reported much the same thing. They have been stone faced security men who denied them entry to restaurants and clubs down south . The reason ? "Admission restricted to members only ." How does one become a member then ? Itís usually not worth arguing about. When I visited South Africa a couple of years back , I noticed signs above restaurants that said "Right of Admission Reserved". This was just before the elections when Mandela came to power, and I felt they must have been toned down a great deal from the earlier "Whites Only" signs. Still the message was polite. But in my own country, I have heard tales of clubs with large signs outside that say "No Locals Allowed". Unbelievable. What happens when you challenge this ? Do they bring out the sjamboks ?

In fact, journalists from this very same magazine have been treated suspiciously and inhospitably by one such establishment, not once but thrice. One supposedly five star hotel near the Dumbbell Tank prevented them from entering , refused to show them the rooms and sent men to watch them as they walked around the place. It was in great contrast to the more culturally sensitive place across the lake which welcomed them in and gave them a guided tour without them even identifying themselves as journalists from a travel magazine.

It especially rankles when tourism to this country drops due to terrorist activity that dissuades sunseekers from flying here. It is then that you see the hotels begin to kow-tow to locals , with open arms and broad grins , saying come ! special rates ! special packages ! A telling point is the way that the hotels drop those famous Sunday buffet packages during the season, only to see them spring up again after March when arrivals drop. I am especially reminded of one hotel that didnít so much as deign to dip its toe in local media when the going was good , but began to splurge on television commercials once arrivals dropped last year. And if you want another illustration of that post-colonial hangover, the television commercials for that hotel down South did not have one single Sri Lankan face in it. Purely foreigners.

Now dot get me wrong. I have nothing whatsoever against tourists from any part of the world. They enjoy themselves , we earn foreign exchange; the local people get jobs and the tourists get tans. Itís a great system. But for some obscure reason, some hotels take it upon themselves to try and segregate the locals from the foreign guests as if we carried some sort of stigma. Whatís the matter, afraid our brown skins will dirty the hotel pool ?

So how do you fight this apartheid system ? Make a fuss. Make a hell of a big fuss. Kick up a loud row in the lobby. Complain to the manager. Complain to the chain that owns the group. Write to the papers. Hell, file a case of discrimination in the courts. If this was America, thereíd be cases filed so fast that you could hear the tramp of lawyers running to court , all the way from India. I donít mind being treated like a tourist in my own land . But donít treat us like dirt just because we are brown.