Tourism land-grab sours tsunami-hit nations

The pressure group Tourism Concern welcomes BBC 2’s two-part TV drama ‘Tsunami, The Aftermath’ which raises that most hidden of issues - why local people have not been able to move back home, nearly two years after the 2004 Boxing Day disaster in South East Asia. This is an outstanding opportunity for all of us to finally understand what happened to local people following the tsunami.

Tourism Concern’s report, “Post-tsunami reconstruction: a second disaster?” was the first to reveal back in October 2005 that it was very likely that people would be doubly displaced, first by the tsunami and then by opportunistic tourism development.

Tourism Concern is campaigning for displaced peoples’ rights to the coastal land and their involvement in the reconstruction process. Tricia Barnett, Director, said, “The tourism industry is treating the tsunami aftermath as an financial opportunity. This has resulted in strategic displacement of traditional fishermen communities from the coast and their livelihood. ” She continued, “The ongoing impacts on tsunami survivors, the loss of their livelihoods and natural resources are devastating and need to be addressed”.


In Sri Lanka, India and Thailand there is conflict between the needs of local communities affected by the tsunami and the plans of government and businesses to rapidly promote tourism in the area. Why is coastal land being used for tourism resorts while thousands of people are stuck in temporary housing? The governments of all affected countries prioritised high-end tourism development rather than the needs of local people. Many survivors were ordered by the government to live away from the sea and provided with housing that was too small, hot and inappropriate. Fishermen have been housed two miles inland.



Thai communities have said they are suffering from six ‘tsunamis’: the actual tidal wave; disorganised and divisive aid agencies; intrusive and insensitive press; landlords threatening eviction with violence; religious organisations trying to convert beneficiaries; and researchers and NGOs collecting information without giving any information.


Hotels are being rebuilt in Khao Lak. The latest issue of Tourism Concern’s In Focus magazine exposes what few people know - the fact that Khao Lak is being rebuilt on slave labour as Burmese migrants are often forced to work for no pay. Construction workers include 10-year-old children who carry cement for around 160 baht a day (£2.25) - if they actually get paid. Many people think that slavery no longer exists. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slavery, yet some Burmese have been bought as labourers on the black market. The estimated total number of Burmese workers in Phuket before the tsunami was 36,000 and 30,000 in Phang Nga. No one knows exactly how many died because the migrants are either illegal or don’t have full citizenship rights.


In Sri Lanka, the tsunami displaced over 500,000 people in 13 out of 14 coastal districts, according to official figures. 90% of them were from small-scale fishing communities. Even today the total number of families needing their house repaired or rebuilt stands at 120,000.


Reconstruction plans are being implemented with little or no input from local communities whose lives and futures are most affected by them. The Sri Lankan, Thai and Indian governments are not allowing people to rebuild their homes on the coast. They claim that the coastal buffer zone would be much better used by the tourism industry than by fishing communities.


Tourism Concern recognises that the tsunami’s impact was devastating and that affected governments were overwhelmed by its complex consequences. However, government and agencies should provide adequate assistance for local communities to build a sustainable future.


Tricia Barnett commented, “the drama ‘Tsunami, the aftermath’ highlights once again that local people are marginalised in favour of tourism. This happens all over the world, with or without a tsunami”.