How do you know you're staying in a bad place? When the UN reminds you that tens of thousands of people were recently killed right next to your beachside bungalow.
A campaign group for human rights has criticised “tasteless” holiday accommodation built on the site of Sri Lanka’s “killing fields”.
The lagoon of Nanthi Kadal, on the island’s north coast, was, in 2009, the scene of atrocities in the Sri Lankan army’s final push against the Tamil Tigers. Now the location, where the UN estimates tens of thousands of civilians were killed, is the setting for army-run holiday homes. One teak villa was opened by the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, the defence secretary.
“Enjoy a soothing holiday and the cool breeze of Nanthi Kadal lagoon,” is how the three-bedroom property, Lagoon’s Edge, is promoted on the resort’s Facebook page. On its walls hang memorials to the civil war. A Sinhala language newspaper report describes it as where “thousands of war heroes, terrorists and others died”.
“War tourism is all about presentation,” said Fred Carver of Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. “In Cambodia, for instance, the killing fields are presented by the victims. When done properly it can have a healing role but in this case it’s all from the perspective of the victors, the Sri Lankan army.
“It’s all about ‘come and see where we killed Prabhakaran’ [leader of the Tamil Tigers]. I can guarantee there’ll be no mention of civilian casualties.”
Jono Vernon-Powell, managing director of the tour operator Nomadic Thoughts, questioned “whether the tourism project is appropriate, given that it is on the very site where a UN report claims the Sinhalese military committed war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The Sri Lankan military runs various private businesses in the country. At Lagoon’s Edge, “all meals and services are supplied by the Sri Lanka army”, and visitors have to be “recommended by a Sri Lanka army official”, it says on the Facebook page.
“We’re concerned about the push the military is making into tourism generally,” said Mr Carver. “They already own several hotels, run whale-watching trips and own wildlife sanctuaries.”
Some tour operators are just beginning to promote Sri Lanka’s previously off-limits northern and eastern coasts.
“There’s unique food and wonderful Tamil culture,” says Sam Clark, managing director of Sri Lanka specialist, Experience Travel. He acknowledged there can be some positive outcomes from “dark tourism” to war zones but cautioned that, in this case, “it is very soon”.
As for staying in army-run accommodation, Mr Clark said: “We encourage people to stay in small, independently owned places rather than ones run by a government institution.”
Sri Lanka’s acting high commissioner, Neville de Silva, objected to the term “war tourism”.
“Just because there was conflict in an area, does it mean tourists shouldn’t go there?” he asked. “Tourism is providing livelihoods for people who were caught up in the conflict.”