Midweek Review
Alternate Space
Tiger Tours (Pvt.) Ltd: Time to invest in war zone tourism?


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Troops in the north (file photo)

By Sasanka Perera
I vaguely remember seeing an ethnographic film called ‘Cannibal Tours’ long years ago. If my recollections are somewhat accurate, it was a film about European tourists coming to New Guinea to see the natives, the exotic ‘cannibals’ of European imagination. They could be seen from the safety of river boats, and much more closely in scheduled places where the roles of each category of individuals (the tourists and natives) were pre-determined, not much different from a stage play where the European fantasies of cannibalism could be experienced without any risks involved.

Similarly, in the mid 1980s someone told me of a British travel agency which specialized in organizing tours to what was at that time perceived as war zones. The destinations included Israel, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, among others where a certain pornography of violence could be experienced — again in relative safety.

What was overheard in a Colombo party last week might suggest that similar business ventures could be established here as well, which will be good news to the financially crippled tourism sector as well as the new regime’s Ministry of Tourism. According to the semi-drunken boasting that was overheard, a group of Colombo Yuppies had gone on a trip to some of the areas known as ‘border villages’. Someone had told them that wild elephants frequented this place more often and in larger numbers than either the Uda Walawa or Yala National Parks. Since the conditions at the checkpoints they had to pass through were relaxed and the cease-fire was on, they thought they could venture further into LTTE controlled areas in search of tigers rather than elephants. They figured that given the publicity linked to the cease-fire and the ongoing peace efforts, they would be safe. Besides, the tigers are already in the habit of coming into government controlled areas, particularly in the east merely by wagging their walkie-talkies and flashing their cyanide capsules instead of the national identity cards. So why not a bunch of totally harmless but somewhat naive Colombo Yuppies? As the story progressed, it became apparent that the group had met some local LTTE commanders, exchanged business cards or addresses and gave some of the tigers a lift to another location in their air-conditioned four wheel drive vehicle.

Finally, as a parting gesture of goodwill, the tigers were invited to visit the group in Colombo when they come there for formal peace talks. "He was sitting right next to me," one of them was saying in referring to one of the LTTE members they had befriended. They were so confidant of their newfound tiger friends that the more talkative of the Yuppie group said, "it is very safe to travel to these areas. We only have to send a message to our friend. He will organize everything."

If this narrative is to be taken seriously (and there is no reason why it should not be), it would appear that Tiger Tourism might have already arrived on the local tourist scene even though as yet in a somewhat embryonic form. Very soon and if the cease-fire continues, the LTTE will have to open their own tourist offices and travel agencies in Colombo and other urban centers. That would allow the city’s curious to travel to the Vanni or any other part of the Northeast in the relative comfort of air-conditioned and camouflage-painted buses in the soon to be re-opened and repaired roads. They will be able to look at the tigers in much the same way they go to Dambana or Henanigala to look at the few individuals who still dress up as Veddas. It will also not be very different from tours organized by the city’s nature lovers to watch elephants in the Uda Walawa or Yala National Parks. This will be the making of a great spectacle.

But war zone tourism in Sri Lanka is not a completely new trend. It existed in certain forms even when combat was on-going. Select groups of local and foreign visitors regularly visited places like Trincomalee, Nilaveli, Batticaloa or Arugam Bay, not to understand the routine hardships of the local people but to enjoy the beaches and the sun and the thrill of enjoying the pleasures of nature in an active war zone.

Technically, all these pleasures of nature’s bounty could also be enjoyed in the south as well where travel is also much easier. But since the south never experienced the same degree and intensity of military confrontation as in the northeast, it cannot offer the same degree of excitement as lying on the beach in a war zone. Even while combat was ongoing, selected beaches in the east were special spaces. They were safe havens in a site of confrontation. According to local people, hotels and other similar institutions maintained their businesses and patches of safe beaches by paying tribute to both military outfits and the LTTE. So tourists from Colombo who travel to Trincomalee or Arugam Bay to ‘hang out’ were able to enjoy their vacations within a reasonable margin of safety, not available to average citizens in the area.

That is where one reality ended and another began. But this situation of alternate realities presents certain complications in the short run. War zone tourism from Colombo and other urban centers may not affect the outcome of the war or prospects for peace in the short run, but it does shape the way individuals in the area perceive other categories of individuals — those they believe are untouched by war. For them, a great deal of their own reality even in the context of the ongoing cease-fire is based on their personal experiences as a moral community marked by pain and suffering while they perceive the activities of the war zone tourists as vulgar or conspicuous consumption. For the tourists themselves, it was merely a matter of having fun.

But then, tourist development in the Third World in general would not seriously take into consideration the pain, concerns or the perceptions of average individual in tourist planning. This certainly would also not apply to the LTTE judging from their well-established below zero standards of democracy and human rights. So in the realm of future development of war zone tourism, the ethics of the situation would not be an issue to many of the individuals who will be involved in such a venture. In that context, the possibilities for the Tourist Board of the Sri Lankan government and the tourist offices of the LTTE that may be established would be enormous.

Government agencies and international development agencies interested in post war reconstruction should seriously look into the possibilities of war zone tourism as a possible boom industry. Just imagine, the zillion NGOs in the country can have quite exotic locations to have their conferences on participatory development and sustainable poverty alleviation rather than the stifling and predictable environments of the city’s five star hotels. Local feminists can have their next conference on empowering women in a refurbished former camp of the LTTE Women’s Corps. Conflict Resolution gurus from all over the world can have their next international brain storming session in a location in the Vanni with burnt out and overturned battle tanks, downed airplanes, piles of corroding but decommissioned ordnance and burnt palms as backdrops. Hollywood film companies can chose similar locations for their next mega productions of films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Workshops on peace building and reconciliation can be held in any one of LTTE’s colorful and meticulously maintained 'martyrs cemeteries.'

Package tourists can be treated to live demonstrations of controlled grenade and landmine explosions. There can be LTTE theme parks where tourists can gaze underground through glass panels to see how landmines have been buried and one could pose for photos with life size statues of child soldiers or Prabhakaran look-a-likes. The gift shops in the theme parks can sell LTTE badges, stuffed Prabhakaran dolls, paper weight and flower pots made out of spent ordnance, cyanide capsule pendants, Tiger calendars, and autographed photos of the tiger supremo. Old bunkers and underground escape tunnels can be turned into cozy little restaurants serving special foods and drinks such as Tiger Burgers, Cyanide Delight Cocktails, AK 47 Club Sandwiches and Eelam Pancakes with Palm Syrup. Clearly, the possibilities are literally endless.

Given the LTTE’s propensity for generating funds for its needs, there is no doubt that the organization will very soon exploit the potential of war zone tourism. That way, it will no longer have to over-tax the hapless civilians privileged to be living in the areas it has liberated. One can only hope that the Sri Lankan government would not miss this great development opportunity.