ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15
Financial Times  

Responsible tourism and positive ‘beach boys’

By Lakwimashi Perera

Beruwela --“Be careful while you’re out there” was how Dharmin Samarajeewa, Secretary of the Tour Guides Association was warned by a foreign tourist when Samarajeewa was venturing out on to the beach in Beruwela for a stroll.

The reason for the caution was the members of the beach community, commonly and derogatorily referred to as “beach boys”. When Samarajeewa told the tourist that he would not be bothered as he is a local, he was answered with a “Proceed-at-your-own-risk” look from the tourist.

Recently, through an innovative project launched by the Responsible Tourism Project (RTP) with the blessings of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (SLTB) and with funding from UK-based The Travel Foundation, the ‘beach boys” were integrated into the mainstream tourism industry, instead of shunned by the bigger players. An event to mark this was held at the Riverina Hotel on August 17 where Renton de Alwis, Chairman of the SLTB, who had also played an active role in this project, was the Chief Guest.
Relating the story behind the project, Charmari Maelge, Advisor to the RTP said that the negative publicity the country received through word of mouth of travellers who visited Sri Lanka has a bigger impact on the sector, even more so than the security situation. The negative publicity, she explained was due to the harassment travellers received at the hands of the beach operators who were in the habit of clinging to the fences erected at the shoreline, with the intention of keeping these very same people out of the hotels, and calling out to the guests who were out and about the hotel’s gardens.

Beach boys with responsibility

Travellers who come to Sri Lanka looking for warmth and freedom and relaxation do not appreciate being kept fenced inside hotel lawns with only a narrow opening leading to the golden beaches that they come in search of, Maelge explained. Adding to their irritation was the fact that the minute they set foot outside the fences of the hotel, the guests are harassed by the beach boys, offering them various excursions and tours.

This behaviour is most prominent on the southern coastal belt, especially in the Bentota – Beruwela stretch, which is also the country’s most famous stretch of coastline among the tourists.

Attempts by the hotels on previous occasions to remove the beach boys by force were met with resistance, even leading to confrontation, Maelge recalled. The people of the community complained as to why they were being prevented from using what they felt as their birthright, to earn a living, hence the conflicts. When the tourism industry was set up in this area, the local communities were not directly involved. With the success of the industry the people became resentful that they were not also drawn in and decided to get involved. Some developed themselves well enough to open their own guest houses but most were left roaming the beach.

Realizing that a solution was needed, and needed fast, the RTP took the initiative to develop the Learning, Involving and Nurturing Community (LINC) project, along with the Bentota Beruwela Hotels Association (BBHA). The pilot project was launched at the Riverina Hotel, Beruwela. Sujith Yamasinghe, a sociologist, who is also the manager of the LINC project spent six months integrating himself with the 72 members who make up the Riverina Hotel beach community. His involvement ensured the elimination of the scepticism on the part of the community. “Because I became their friend and went to their homes, they accepted me and listened to what I had to say instead of shutting me out,” Yamasinghe said. Through this programme, the beach operators were given training by the RTP on many areas while members who successfully complete this training will be awarded a certificate, also endorsed by the SLTB. The 72 members who make up the Riverina Hotel beach community received their certificates on that day.

The new project will promote the “live and let live” policy and allow the beach operators the chance to earn a living and sustain their families through the trade that is dominant in their hometowns while the visitors are given the opportunity to learn about local cultures and to share experiences which would be difficult to find without local expertise. “Don’t chase the tourists. We will arrange for the tourists to come to you” is basically what the project is all about, Maelge explained. After the operators receive their certificates and complete the training, the programme will be promoted among the tourists by the hotels and also by The Travel Foundation, giving the tourists the chance to decide which excursions and which operator they want. As the operators are divided into groups with different groups working at different times, it promotes fair play and equal opportunities among all operators.

Suresh de Silva, a newly trained beach operator said he has been in this profession for about 11 years now. When asked what exactly it is that they do, he replied “We take the guests on tours. Some are short tours on boats to the nearby mangroves in the lagoon, but we also started tours to Kandy and Sigiriya and other places like that”. Speaking of his thoughts about the LINC project, he said it was better than they expected and that he learnt a lot on how to engage in his vocation better through the training.

Manuel Perera, another beach operator also spoke about his profession and the new project. “This is the job that our fathers also did so it was natural for us to also follow suit,” he said. He admitted that there was a certain stigma attached with the job and the way it was talked of, leading to reluctance on the part of the former beach boys to join the new programme.

The beach operators are unanimous in their agreement that this new programme is a win-win situation, where the hotels, the beach community and the visitors gain something of value from it. “Now we can speak of our trade with a sense of dignity,” said N. Viraj, the first person to be won over by Yamasinghe and persuaded to give the programme a chance, speaking on behalf of the entire beach community of Riverina Hotel.

Hiran Cooray, Co-Chairperson of the RTP, speaking to The Sunday Times FT admitted that people roaming on the beaches of the south, harassing tourists was a huge problem that was swept under the rug all this time instead of being dealt with and said he believed this programme can be implemented elsewhere to eliminate the harassment.

After the success of this pilot project, the RTP and the BBHA plan to implement this programme in other hotels along the Bentota-Beruwela coastline, with the ultimate goal of ridding Sri Lankan beaches of the problem of harassment to travellers.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.