x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Looking for a guilt-free holiday? Better just stay home

Yes, Sri Lanka had a bloody civil war. But that does not mean holiday-makers should shun the place.

A small, three-storey guesthouse sits on a hill above Unawatuna Beach in south-east Sri Lanka; it has an apartment on the top floor with views out over the beach where many people died in the 2004 tsunami. There are also two en suite rooms on the second floor; they rent out for US $35 (Dh129) per night.

Hot running water has yet to be plumbed into all the rooms, and the sheets are threadbare and patched. But as my host explains, "luxuries" like lampshades, cotton sheets and mattress protectors are expensive.

Instead of fluffy towelling robes and a daily laundry service, his guests are treated to a family welcome and home cooking that's second to none.

As the family's main source of income, the guest rooms have been finished at the expense of the family's ground-floor living area; peak tourist season is all too short. Europeans descend for three months seeking a cheap winter break with all the usual ingredients: sun, sea and sand. Each year, the family mortgages some jewellery to help make ends meet and, without any assistance from the government, they hope the tourists will come, the guesthouse will be fully booked and their three-year old son's future will become more assured.

They hold this hope despite a belief among some foreigners that Sri Lanka's violent past has somehow made it off limits today, a sentiment expressed in a series of letters to the editor in The National in response to an article I wrote in March.

"I have a suggestion for the writer of Travelling with Kids: Sri Lanka worth throwing caution to the wind," offered Sandy Vadi, of Canada, in a letter dated April 2. "If you want to travel to some place where you can go from a guesthouse to a beach, there are umpteen places in the world. But Sri Lanka should not be on your list." This is, she says, because there is blood on its beaches after the indiscriminate killing of its citizens by the government.

Anger is a sentiment shared by many other readers, too, riled by the way that a mother (me) explained in that March feature for the Travel section that an inadequate hot water supply did not stand in the way of a great family holiday.

But my Sri Lankan host is also angry, at the way in which private villas and hotels have been allowed to build walls around their beachfront properties so locals can no longer gain access. And he is angry at the idea that he should suffer for Colombo's mistakes. I won't repay his hospitality by naming him, because the government is running a campaign against "traitors", including journalists and human rights workers. It doesn't take criticism kindly.

In October 2009, I wrote a very different kind of article for the Travel section, about the country's plans for tourism after the end of the civil war between Tamils and government forces, a conflict that claimed an estimated 70,000 lives over 26 years.

In it, I explained how the tourism board said that the country hoped to welcome 750,000 tourists by 2011; in fact, according to official statistics, almost 856,000 people chose Sri Lanka for a holiday last year.

Will a recent UN Human Rights Council resolution, calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged abuses against the Tamil population in the last months of the conflict, make any difference to tourists' future travel plans? That remains to be seen. But why should it? What do the government's actions, however hotly debated, despised and condemned, have to do with one local guesthouse owner's attempt to provide for his family?

What is ethical travel if it is not supporting local, sustainable tourism initiatives and putting money into the hands of people who need it most?

Countries that can boast an entirely clean record on human rights are few. Damascus is probably not on most people's travel wish list right now, but how about London? The UK capital is not only the home of this year's Olympic Games, but also the seat of a Conservative-led coalition government that, in opposition, supported the invasion of Iraq, and is still entrenched in Afghanistan with the loss of thousands of lives.

Then, there's India where according to UN statistics, infant girls are most likely to die, thanks to deadly gender bias. Or, how about boycotting China over Tibet? Or Italy for the way it treats economic migrants from north Africa who risk everything for a better way of life? I could go on.

The point is, travellers seeking to holiday with a clear conscience had best stay at home and reduce their carbon footprint. But that's another dilemma entirely.