Bombs in Sri Lanka, shootings in America: Similar levels of violence, but a different take in travel advisories

by Siddharth Shanghvi, ToI

When a series of bomb blasts ripped through Sri Lanka earlier this year, on April 21, my heart went out to the island and its people. Sri Lanka had bravely emerged through a long civil war and its recent ticket as Asia’s go-to fleek travel destination gave its delicate economy a required rousing. But right after the terrorist attacks, many countries issued advisories against travel to Sri Lanka (most of which have since been lifted).

But travel advisories against countries are a questionable matter, one that betrays power imbalances between nations, and leaves lasting perception damage on the country. I have just returned from Sri Lanka – described memorably by Michael Ondaatje as a ‘pendant off the ear of India’ – where i saw the impact of such advisories on its economy. Walking through the charming streets of Galle or Colombo, i saw few tourists at design stores. Restaurants on popular Pedlar Street were bare on a weekend evening. Hotels were running empty. Taxis had no takers. The beach was deserted.

Malik Fernando, a reputed hotelier and founder of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, was concerned by the perception impairment of travel advisories. "Tourism makes up almost 10% of our GDP," he told me, "and one in ten people depend on it." At our breakfast in the Welligama Bay, we discussed the politics of issuing caution against travelling out to conflicted turf. But this raises questions of who is in power to mandate such advisories, and whether all countries are vulnerable to these notifications.

I told Fernando about the horrific, and tragic, mass shootings in America recently, which resulted in 31 deaths. We agreed this was heartbreaking. However, it was puzzling how no travel advisories were ever imposed on America. Up to July 31 this year, 248 mass shootings in America resulted in 979 injured and 246 deaths.

I am not extending a vulgar, heartless comparative scale of tragedies in America versus Sri Lanka. The loss of a single life is a profound one, and incomparable to any other. I am asking, instead, why we are seized by a selective panic attack about Sri Lanka when in America you could get shot while you’re out buying milk at the supermarket? Perhaps this is an indictment of subtle racism, and overt privilege, which views smaller Asian countries as unsafe or volatile although as Americans will testify, the rage of a crazy person is an equal opportunities employer.

In 2012, the New York Times first voted Sri Lanka among its list of destinations to travel to that year. But Sri Lanka was dropped from this august list after a horrific Christmas day gang rape and killing in Tangalle. Perhaps it was perceived to be unsafe for women travellers. India, too, has lived through such advisories and cautions, particularly after the gang rape of Nirbhaya.

Every year, 3,21,500 Americans over 12 years have been sexually assaulted or raped. America is helmed by a president who has been accused of rape, and publicly said things about women that are not only plainly misogynist but amounted to inciting violence. I do not recall the New York Times ever drop America from its list of travel destinations on the basis of extraordinary sexual assaults on women, or institutionalised misogyny broadcast from its leader down. Is this how the West constructs safety – conveniently, foolishly, with the shameless arrogance of selective omission?

After Welligama, i travelled out to the small village of Ahungalla to meet Austrian expat Kathrin Messner, who runs here a beautiful artist residency, school and Ayurveda retreat. There were no visitors to the retreat although Messner was confident this would change over winter. Sitting amid a grove of coconut trees, we swat off the odd mosquito. A guest at Messner’s aperitif raised an important distinction: There’s always an advisory issued about dengue and malaria in an Asian or African country but no travel advisories against Europe, where flu has shattering effects. One doesn’t even need to be bit by a bug; simply taking the metro can end up as a health hazard.

Toni Morrison, the great American writer who passed away last week, was hailed for deconstructing the mechanics of racism. One key point she raised in Beloved, the novel that vaulted a Nobel Prize in her lap, is how definitions lie in the hands of the definers, not the defined. This might well apply to travel advisories, who impose them, and how, and their enduring, ruinous effect on swathes of population economically dependent on tourism.

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