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The Price Of Paradise: On The Eve Of A High Tourism Industry

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Around this time of the year, when spring turns to summer -- between those April showers and the cookout holidays -- many Americans are considering luxury vacations. Many tropical, high-end destinations commonly come to mind all over the world, from the Caribbean shores to the pristine Polynesian and Maldivian islands. These remote paradises of the world share a long history with United States vacationers and are not likely to change, but how do these places come to be such tourist hot-spots -- and, perhaps more intriguingly, what are the local consequences?

Enter Sri Lanka. Most Americans do not include the small teardrop-shaped island country hanging below India on the vacation must-see list; but we soon will. The nation, recently united after a 26-year civil war, has remained virtually off the shelf to leisurely Americans browsing the travel aisle of their local bookstores. But since 2009, the nation has begun to transform its industry in order to create a market for high-end vacationing, and it is doing astoundingly well.

I share a cup of delectable tea with a Sri Lankan family in their small, open home in a rural village along the southern coast. The family's mother explains to me carefully that as prices inflate and new means of transportation increase at home, many Sri Lankans are finding it necessary to acclimate to the rapidly-developing industry to make ends meet. This means learning English and accommodating incoming tourists.

This husband and wife are proud as they generously offer me ginger jelly sweets and fish curry. They are very kind to me, and I graciously accept their hospitality. They show me their beautiful seaside view, where the eye looks endlessly over crystalline Indian waters. They begin to tell me about their young daughter, age five. Today is her first day of classes at the local English language school, and I am shown the English instructional books they have bought for her. For them, learning English will help to ensure future financial leverage for their daughter.

English language schools are flourishing in cities and the country alike, and hotel service schools are bustling. Meanwhile, once-desolate shores of crystal-clear and coral-spotted waters looking out to Antarctica are becoming "found" by tourists and entrepreneurs alike.

I speak with the proprietor of a small guest house along the rural southern coast over a cup of tea. He speaks eloquently and is respected throughout the quiet, small seaside town. He tells me that since the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military ended in 2009, prime and pristine coastal, government-owned land has increasingly been sold to foreign tourists and is now becoming home to glistening new hotels and guest houses. Consequently, Sri Lankans next door are looking to sell. This purchasing opportunity has become a potential source of revenue for foreign nationals over Sri Lankans. Since 2009, a growing tourism market has been formed, and those who can create high profits are those who can afford this prime real estate.

I ask this guest house proprietor if he would consider selling his coastal property. He tells me that he has received offers from a British couple, and that if the "right offer" came through he would accept it. After, he tells me he would try to find a smaller property to rent to fewer tourists than he currently can today. Because foreign tourists have been purchasing nearby land and building over the past two years, he recounts how he has begun to lose revenues.

These stories are not singular but rather are occurring across the country. As tourism infrastructure increases so do its prices, and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) knows this. The SLTDA is currently engaged in a 10-year plan to increase high tourism infrastructure and project planning. As the pristine tropical shores continue to become purchased by internationals, local citizens have to adjust, toward an English-speaking market.

by D. Archie Frink

D. Archie Frink received his Bachelor of Science in Anthropology from Middle Tennessee State University. He also studied Political Science at Loyola Marymount University. He conducted initial ethnographic fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest in 2011, covering issues of political economy and ecological sustainability among a small peasant community. He presented his findings in 2011 at the American Anthropological Association conference. Archie currently lives in Los Angeles, California, and is pursuing his career in public policy. In 2012, he authored a travel blog (modernity, deconstructed.) which has been received widely. For professional contact: darchiefrink@gmail.com.