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Tourism development undermining millions in tsunami aid

Five years since the Boxing Day tsunami devastated the coastlines of India and Sri Lanka, killing thousands and destroying countless homes and livelihoods, many communities are still struggling to rebuild their lives. This is despite massive aid flows to the region, including over £400 million raised through donations in the UK.

“All too often, tourism is a major factor preventing these communities from flourishing,” says Tricia Barnett, Director of Tourism Concern. “Tourism developments are threatening coastal peoples’ livelihoods and alienating them from their land, grossly undermining the millions of pounds donated in tsunami aid. The governments of these countries and the international travel industry need to be challenged to ensure that human rights are not flouted in the name of tourism”.

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments used the mass displacement of coastal people from their land by the tsunami as an opportunity to sell off prime beaches for tourism. In many places, newly established ‘buffer zones’ prevented residents from returning to rebuild homes and businesses – ostensibly to protect them from another tsunami. Many communities have been re-housed in isolated villages several kilometres inland. Much of the new housing is cramped and poorly built.

“Relocation inland can mean alienation from their traditional ways of life, the breakdown of family and social networks, and increased costs as fishermen and women are forced to travel further to reach coasts and markets”, states Barnett. “Meanwhile, the coastal planning regulations are regularly flouted by large tourism developers.”

Other communities are still waiting for their tsunami-damaged homes to be rebuilt. In Sri Lanka, development agencies estimate that almost 7,000 tsunami victims are still awaiting permanent housing in the eastern region of Batticaloa , a situation now confounded by the thousands of internally displaced people that fled the north of the country to escape the recently ended civil war.


Communities that have remained on the coast are under increasing pressure to sell their land to developers. Plagued by debt, declining fish catches and rising food prices, many families are falling prey to the hard-sell tactics of real estate agents. They are often unaware that ensuing tourism developments will cut them off from their livelihood source, as beaches are privatised and access to the sea is blocked.

“The 2004 tsunami was one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. Unregulated tourism development in tsunami-hit areas is a disaster waiting to happen. The difference is that it can be stopped by governments and the tourism industry putting human rights first. This means implementing policies that protect local livelihoods and the natural environment and promoting sustainable, equitable development”, says Barnett.


The following case studies are drawn mainly from Tourism Concern’s new report, Putting Tourism to Rights: A challenge to human rights abuses in the tourism industry.

Ankalamman Kuppam, Tamil Nadu
The 100 or so families of this village are still living in neat rows of temporary housing several hundred yards from the sea on land owned by a private landlord. Their original homes were destroyed in the tsunami and lie in ruins along the shore. “The new housing is cramped and hot”, say local fishermen Bob and Anbu. “There was no consultation with the community about the design or location of the houses. The quality of life for us has seriously diminished. We want to live back near the sea on our own land, in the cool shade of the palms and where we can keep a close eye on the sea, our boats and nets.” However, the government won’t build within 400 meters of the shoreline. All the surrounding land has reportedly been bought up by tourism developers, shrimp farms and fish hatcheries. “We can foresee a threat from tourism, that it may restrict our movements and access to the coast, but we’re not able to visualize exactly what this threat will be”, says Bob.

Puddador Kuppam, Tamil Nadu
K. Jachumalai is the village headman of Puddador Kuppam. “There are lots of private developers around who want to buy land, but we are resisting because we’ve already been relocated once due to other industrial developments. A movie star has bought land and built a big house just next to the village. Lots of fences are being erected as the land gets privatised, which is affecting our mobility. Fish catches have drastically reduced since the tsunami, but it’s the only employment option for people here. Otherwise they’d have to leave the village to look for work, but the wages are poor and there is no dignity”.

Kerala, India
In Kerala, southern India, money from the central government’s Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme is being used to pay for 20 ‘beach beautification’ schemes. Near the state capital, Trivandrum, a beach promenade for tourists now blocks access to the sea for local fishermen, who have nowhere to store their boats and remain living in poor conditions. Another project in Kovalam will involve the construction of an artificial reef, turning the town into an international surfing destination. Local opposition groups estimate that 500 fishermen will be put out of work by the reef, while fish breeding grounds would used for sports fishing. No environmental impact assessments have been conducted for the reef or any of the other projects. Locals are also concerned that waves deflected off the reef will increase coastal erosion in neighbouring fishing communities.

Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
Following the tsunami, Arugam Bay, a low-key surfing destination traditionally dependent on farming and fishing in east Sri Lanka, was one of 15 locations earmarked for tourist ‘townships’ by the government at a cost of US$1.2 billion. New housing for an estimated 5,000 displaced families was to be provided in five separate inland locations - more than one kilometre from the sea.

Following vehement opposition from local residents, the plans were shelved. However, since the end of the civil war in May 2009, the development of tourism in Sri Lanka is being aggressively pursued once more. Arugam Bay has been dubbed ‘the new Koh Samui’ by one real estate developer, while land is being sold for up to US$35,000 for half an acre .