The Tourist Police will be cracking down hard on locals who pester and prey on foreign guests, writes Nadia Fazlulhaq Female tourists and foreigners working in the country say they are being increasingly harassed, teased and pursued by local males. Sophie (not her real name) is an expatriate from Los Angeles, California who arrived in the [...]


Female visitors do not come here to be harassed


The Tourist Police will be cracking down hard on locals who pester and prey on foreign guests, writes Nadia Fazlulhaq

Female tourists and foreigners working in the country say they are being increasingly harassed, teased and pursued by local males. Sophie (not her real name) is an expatriate from Los Angeles, California who arrived in the country three months back. She does her daily workout, mainly jogging in the Cinnamon Gardens area.

Their right to take a stroll in peace: Foreign women will no longer see this place as a paradise isle if harassment continues. Pix by S. Siriwardene

“I’m harassed all the time,” she told the Sunday Times. “One day, as I was doing my 400 metre sprints, some men stopped and stared for about 15 minutes. One of the men started taking pictures with his cell phone and giving me a cheesy smile and a thumbs-up. I was so disgusted I went home shaking. Unfortunately, my boyfriend is in Kandy.”

Sophie has started wearing headphones wherever she goes so she will not have to hear the wolf whistles and the eve teasing (sexual remarks). “Of course, I won’t let these things spoil my enjoyment of your beautiful country. But I can see how expat women can grow to dislike Sri Lanka because of the non-stop harassment,” she said.

Toni from Norway is visiting the country for the first time with three of her girlfriends. “In Negombo, we were followed by a bunch of men who were trying to force us to buy their handicrafts. They followed us everywhere and kept making remarks. We ignored them, but it was really unpleasant,” she said.

French tourist Pauline said, “This is a holiday and I want peace to enjoy the beach. I don’t like it when men make sick remarks,” she said.  Female foreigners have also complained of men touching them and grabbing their breasts and buttocks as they drive by in three-wheelers. Others have lodged complaints of being cheated and sexually harassed, often at motels and spas.

“Touts offer to help tired female foreigners to get to the top of Sigiriya. But once we reach the top, we are charged exorbitant sums – Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 2,500. This is on top of the Rs. 3,900 we are charged at the entrance,” said another tourist who wished to remain anonymous.

The Sunday Times found that the majority of visitors to Sri Lanka are low-budget travellers with little English, and therefore hard put to lodge complaints. Last year, the country recorded one million visitors, compared to 800,000 in 2011. The majority were from Western Europe (373, 063), with 114,218 tourists from the UK, 71,642 from Germany, and 56,863 from France. The figures were provided by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.

The most recent statistics show that 40.8 per cent of tourists are female. Last year the majority of tourists were between the ages of 30 to 49.  Dr. Harini Amerasuriya, a senior lecturer in sociology, says that Sri Lanka has been experiencing socio-cultural changes over the years, but there is still a lot of ignorance about acceptable behaviour towards women.

“The blend of exposure to pornography and hypocrisy has led to extreme two-facedness,” Dr. Amerasuriya says. “The men enjoy pornography and at the same time trash it. And just because they see white-skinned women in pornography, they think the Western woman is promiscuous and enjoys sexual remarks and other forms of harassment.”
While on the one hand the country is desperate to promote tourism, on the other hand it should be providing school and community education on the importance of being decent hosts to foreigners and how to show respect to women, Dr. Amerasuriya said.

Following the sharp increase in complaints from female visitors, the Police will be deploying more police officers in civvies to patrol public places, especially hotels and tourist areas.

“If there is harassment, we will take action, and if there is crime, we will enforce the law,” said Maxie Proctor, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) and Acting Director of Tourist Police. “Tourists are welcome to lodge complaints, and Police action will proceed even without the complainant, who might have left the country by the time the case comes to court,” he said.

As part of the ‘one billion rising’ global campaign to raise awareness over crimes against women held on February 14, a protest was held at Lipton’s Circus in Colombo. Here a foreigner is seen doing his bit. Pic by Amila Gamage

Maxie Proctor: “Tourists are welcome to lodge complaints”

Toni: Recalling unpleasant experience in Negombo. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Last year, visitors made 90 complaints to the Tourist Police, compared with 82 in 2011. In the first six weeks of this year, there have been 14 complaints. Complaints recorded at Tourist Police Headquarters in Kollupitiya range from poor quality service and exorbitant charges to sexual harassment, theft and narcotics offences.

The Police top brass have held meetings to find ways to strengthen security for foreigners and protect them from crime and harassment.

According to SSP Proctor, senior Police officers in the provinces have been instructed by the Inspector General of Police to work with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, tourist hotels and other institutions on minimizing inconvenience to tourists.

SSP Proctor said the Police are recruiting English-speaking persons for the Police Force. “We will be taking on about 50 English-speaking Tourist Police officers to work in the tourist zones. Later, as we build up the team, the officers will be trained in foreign languages such as French and German,” he said. The Tourist Police officers will be dressed like lifeguards, with a T-shirt bearing the Police crest and the words “Tourist Police.”

Tourist Hotels Association chairman J. Kehelpannala told the newspaper that hotels and registered resorts have been instructed to be on the alert for locals who attempt to harass and manipulate visitors.

Warning to British nationals

The travel advisory for British nationals arriving to the country states: “violent crimes against foreigners are relatively infrequent, although  there have been an increasing number of reports of sexual offences  including on minors. When travelling around Sri Lanka, you should make arrangements through reputable travel companies and exercise  appropriate caution.  Women should take particular care when  travelling alone, or in small groups, and carry personal alarms”.

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