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July 28, 2005

Three Months On – Community Tourism Takes Shape


Three Months On – Community Tourism Takes Shape
Observations from Sri Lanka

I joined Sarvodaya three months ago as a professional volunteer. I am adjusting to life in Colombo where I am based and really feel that I am living here now, as opposed to passing through. Sri Lankans are joyously friendly with a generous flair for hospitality. The driving has taken some adjustment! It is best described as psychotic – the rules appear to be that there are no rules other than a thinly-disguised rule to avoid other vehicles! The language spoken is ‘horn’ – one to four blasts according to your point – the ‘I am passing you’ horn, the ‘I have seen you’ horn, the ‘don’t even think about it’ horn and the blood-curdling ‘one of us has to blink first and it isn’t going to be me’ horn – it works, bizarrely!

From devastation to vocational crafts centre, shop and cafe on the Galle Road

I am a travel and tourism expert from the UK and I recently gave up my job as Managing Director of a luxury travel company in London in order to do voluntary work overseas. I view it as the very best possible outcome of this decision that I now find myself working for Sarvodaya to establish its first ever Community Tourism Initiative (CTI).

Discussing project ideas with a women’s group in Mirissa, close to Matara

The objective of the CTI is to enhance sustainably the income and value of Sarvodaya and its village communities at grassroots level by sharing its natural resources, village culture and vision with paying visitors from home and overseas who seek meaningful and enlightening experiences. It is a first principle that all income will devolve directly to the community.

Meditation retreats at Vishva Niketan, close to Colombo city centre

The experiences offered will range from simple home stays in village communities, farm visits, meditation retreats and *Shramadana camps for ‘voluntourists’ to the development of an eco-hotel, a handicrafts vocational centre, an agricultural museum and an environmental resource centre. The projects are located in Sarvodaya villages and sites throughout Sri Lanka, some in the Tsunami belt and some in the rural areas. * Shramadana Camps are village community gatherings where an entire village and any willing visitors work collectively over an intense 2 or 3 day period to build, repair, landscape or whatever is needed. It might be a pre-school building, a water well, a repair to a reservoir or a community building for example. Visitors will be asked to make a contribution to participate and stay in a local home or one of our dormitory facilities knowing that their efforts and income are being directly beneficial to that community.

Kabithigollava – a potential agricultural museum

Within a week of arriving, I had an unforgettable day in the east at a stone-laying ceremony in Vaddavan – see This was my first face-to-face experience of post-Tsunami Sri Lanka and I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer dignity and bravery of the people I met and faces which greeted me.

Since then, I have travelled extensively, viewing various potential project sites, meeting with the village and district leaders and learning as much as I can about both the philosophy and reach of Sarvodaya and about Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and product.

We are now over six months on from the Tsunami tragedy and, whilst my work is not restricted to the Tsunami belt, there are a number of projects in the affected areas. This has brought me in to direct contact with a number of individuals and village communities who have been tragically impacted by the Tsunami. It feels desperately harrowing one moment, uplifting the next. I am not a trained aid worker and have never before been in a situation such as this – there are times when I feel totally unqualified to help but find tremendous support from the Sarvodaya team who are simply outstanding and who understand how to deal with disaster recovery. And there are times when I feel so encouraged and energised to see that the Community Tourism Initiative can really help improve people’s lives in so many cases.

Some people I came across are still literally waiting for aid to come and make their lives better – many are homeless, bereaved or both and six months is actually not very long for someone trying to cope with such total devastation in their lives. Smiles were never in short supply but I found little sense of ‘can do’ and entrepreneurial spirit – maybe it was there and was washed away by the Tsunami or perhaps Sri Lanka suffers now from many years of dependency on foreign aid.

It is in this, the all-important issue of self-empowerment and self-governance that I stand in amazement and awe at the goals and achievements of Sarvodaya wherein all work is designed to engender self-reliance. This sense of ownership and pride is much needed and will be the most effective tool for the many thousands of Sri Lankans who need to rebuild their lives.

My challenge is to work with communities to develop projects which are going to be sustainable, employment-generating, community-involving and culturally-sensitive. The last thing we want to do is to impose anything on a community and so the best I can do is to give ideas and encourage local discussion to ensure there is 100% buy-in. We now have teams in various communities developing project ideas to ensure they will work for them and my next task is to help those communities to bring the projects to fruition. Some require external funding, some do not but all will deliver immediate and long-term benefits to the communities which are desperately needed.

On a lighter note, there have been moments of high comedy – my favourite is this. I needed an interpreter during a meeting with Jay, a Tamil speaker in the north east. The interpreter, nudging 75 or so, had learned his English from the British army when they were stationed at Trincomalee so lots of ‘jolly good show’ and ‘would you like a cup of tea’ punctuated the day. I asked my questions but the interpreter himself promptly answered them with no reference to Jay – I asked him to please ask Jay to which the answer was ‘he is agreeing with me’. We got there in the end and finished the day as firm friends – but he saved the best until last when Jay wrapped up the meeting by speaking passionately and eloquently in Tamil for about 10 minutes – I turned to the interpreter for the translation, expecting a long-winded rendition only to be told ‘Jay is agreeing with me and is very happy’. I gave up!

One thing is for sure – Tsunami or no Tsunami, this island nation boasts some of the world’s most breathtaking experiences, sights and sounds – it is such a cliché but there really is something for everyone from beaches to rainforest hikes, ancient Buddhist temples to leopard safaris, elephant orphanages to kayaking, simple lodges to sophisticated boutique hotels. We will post more details of the CTI projects once they are up and running – in the meantime, anyone wanting to make a donation to the Community Tourism Initiative please drop us a line!.

Catherine Leech, Community Tourism Initiative
[email protected]
July 2005

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.