Tourists to Angkor Wat and Bagan: Why Anuradhapura ignored
Posted on February 7th, 2016

By Susantha Goonatilake

In 1993 with the Khmer Rouge still partly operational, my wife went to Cambodia on behalf of the UN, in charge of the UN women’s projects there, women were the majority after the Pol Pot war. I remember at the time that visitors to Angkor Wat were scarce, probably around 15,000. And the cost of staying at its best hotel, the Grand Hotel, equivalent to our Galle Face Hotel was around $30. Today, there are over 3 million tourists going to Angkor Wat to see the temple complexes and both number of hotels and hotel prices have shot up. And further afield, Myanmar is now opening up to cultural tourism, and its ancient capital Bagan is set to attract millions in the future.

This article is a foray into a series of recent seminars related to tourism and our ancient sites. Participating in them I found a woeful lack of interest and sometimes of basic knowledge as I tried to raise the issue of our ancient sites as a tourist attraction as well as a soft power projection. So bear with this display of my own frustration.

Sri Lanka whose Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were inspirations to both Cambodian and Myanmar culture remain in comparison to the latter, a tourist backwater. Gone were the days when Anuradhapura fired the foreign imagination in the 19th and early 20th centuries as one of the lost cities” of the ancient world alongside Angkor Wat and Bagan. But for tourists to visit Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, the usual way is on day trips from the tourist resorts in Habarana and the Dambulla/Sigiriya resorts; the hotels in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are marginal. And this was not accidental but was built into the first tourist plan of the 1950’s done by a Hawaiian firm. (Decades ago, I did a study of the tourist industry published in Canada and still quoted where I traced the Hawaiian origins of our tourist ideology). This tourist plan was perhaps unconsciously built on the mainland US tourists then streaming into Hawaii, a beach based paradise” in the then American imagination. Few US tourists came to Sri Lanka and the bulk from the 1960’s was Germans followed later by other Western Europeans and now increasingly Chinese. But that sea, sun and sand” template of Hawaii has still stuck to the detriment of cultural tourism.

Cultural tourism and tourism itself started as pilgrimages, the first possibly being that of Emperor Asoka to the places frequented by the Buddha. His example was followed in Sri Lanka as very many pilgrimage poems and stanzas indicate. Later, there were pilgrimages in the West undertaken to points of interest for Christians. And in the 19th century when the so-called Grand Tour was organised, it was for the European rich to visit areas of their cultural interest. When our Anagarika Dharmapala regained some hold on Bodh Gaya, Sinhalese rushed in, almost as a duty, and today the site is full of visitors from all over the Buddhist world. India around 15 years ago introduced a Buddhist Circuit” targeting visitors from the Asian Buddhist world. And during the last few days, the state government in Odisha (Orissa) announced its own Buddhist tourism.

Perhaps our most visible push on cultural tourism is that fictional invention of our tourist authorities, the Ramayana Trail”. There are no archaeological sites associated with this fairy tale, but a gentleman associated with the tourist authorities has been pushing invented sites. A couple of years ago, the Royal Asiatic Society Sri Lanka (RASSL) organised a major academic conference (published in the RASSL Journal) on the Ramayana with archaeologists, historians and Buddhist scholars as speakers and also invited this tourist gentleman to present his views. He did not come in spite of several reminders. And we found that there was a whole industry surrounding this fictional Ramayana including a lorry driver going round the country painting over letters in inscriptions!

Although our tourist authorities have been pushing this fiction as a Ramayana trail”, India, even her current Hindu fundamentalist government, has no parallel Ramayana Trail for tourists. India on the other hand has a Buddhist Circuit” for tourists.

During the last few years, I had met our tourist authorities attempting to change the situation, but in vain. A few years ago, my wife and I met the then tourist chief and told him about Angkor Wat and the opportunities we have missed. He seemed convinced on promoting cultural tourism including as a soft power projection of Sri Lanka. As an added commercial incentive, I also recalled that one of my classmates Roti” Sivaratnam, then head of the leading tourist company Aitken Spence, had said that he would use his company to explore my suggestion. But unfortunately, Roti died, his project unfulfilled. And unfortunately too, that tourist chief we met left to take charge of another government financial institution.

A couple of years later, I organised through the RASSL Annual Research Sessions, a special symposium on cultural tourism – logical since the bulk of academics in history, heritage and social sciences were our RASSL members. We invited as speakers the then Director General, Tourism Development Authority and his associates, the then Director General Central Cultural Fund, the ambassador from Thailand. Others from the RASSL membership spoke on cultural tourism in other Asian countries. The tourism authority seemed interested, but months later finding no outcome, I rang up the gentleman. And he said that these matters had to be cleared through Basil Rajapakse. And that was the end of that.

With the new government, there were two quasi-academic events relating to tourism – one by the Colombo University and the other at the OPA. The former was organised by a Colombo University academic with a post graduate training in economics of tourism from a Western University. I went to the event believing that it would open up discussion, but unfortunately seeing the program and listening to the first session, I realised that there was no room for broader discussion and was simply marketing the current tourism orthodoxy. A lecture here by the cook Pabilis was hardly an intellectual inspiration. (And as for cooking, let it be assured that the dishes of my dead grandmother taste far better.)

The OPA event was addressed by the new current person in charge of tourism promotion. The speaker’s written introduction of himself was the longest I had seen, not only at the OPA but at the literally hundreds of conferences in Sri Lanka and abroad I have attended. Normally just hundred words of introduction is the norm for introduction which at this OPA event became a crude marketing exercise for the speaker. The program for tourism that he put out had no room for cultural tourism. When I posed the cultural possibilities, he answered that it must be explored, probably the thought not having entered his mind before. He said he recently had realised that the Dalada Perahera was 1700 years old, indicating his ignorance of our cultural history. His bow to local history was to unearth that old slogan of Sigriya as the 8th Wonder of the World”.

When there was a global competition for the eighth wonder, no tourist board campaigned for Sri Lanka; it was won by Brazil for the figure of Christ on its mountain mainly because of huge campaigning. Now, the so-called seven wonders are an invention of the ancient Mediterranean world (and I had seen several of them). But by any criteria, if those were wonders, so were the sites in Anuradhapura. And hardly anybody in the Tourist Authorities was campaigning for it. And one wondered whether the push for Sigriya was a means of avoiding promoting Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa . Oh, he did mention that he should use the Disney film Monkey Kingdom” shot in Sri Lanka for promotion, but it was not for promotion of the Polonnaruwa kingdom where the monkeys frolicked, but purely the tales and tails of the rilawas. The OPA speaker’s avoidance of the Buddhist heritage was perhaps understandable because in his talk he made allusions to the church. He also downplayed the emerging markets in Asia which are set to storm the worldwide tourist industry. He also did not mention the potential inroads of the Airbnb phenomenon – of rooms in houses being rented through the Internet and which was becoming a threat to the normal hotel industry.

I wish to close this journey related to tourism through seminars by one event of a couple of weeks ago organised by the Central Cultural Fund CCF at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology PGIAR. The talk included the tourist potential for the megalithic culture which one should mention was no civilisation but was at a primitive tribal” state. Perhaps the most important statement here was the remark by Dr Siran Deraniyagala possibly the best archaeologist in Sri Lanka. He threw cold water on the archaeologists assembled stating that there was no peer review in archaeology meetings in Sri Lanka. (In parentheses one should mention that the annual RASSL research sessions have papers submitted in archaeology and are peer-reviewed with roughly only half accepted). But the current Central Cultural Fund leader held some promise for cultural tourism in that unlike his predecessor who as a speaker at the cultural tourism symposium of the RASSL had been confused during the discussions. The current gentleman although trying to push the megalithic culture seemed to be open to suggestions of cultural tourism of a civilisational kind.

The issue of no peer review has repercussions for the international standings of Sri Lanka academia which are very low. Such rankings come largely by citations of publications in peer-reviewed journals. And if one puts the names of various scholars into a site like Google Scholar”, one will see the paucity of informed discussion in the country. The recent CCF meeting was also a pointer of this state of discussion when the head of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeological Research PGIAR addressed the meeting. The PGIAR, we should note, should be the equivalent in archaeology to the respected Postgraduate Institute of Medicine. The PGIAR Director was hardly what the doctor ordered”. He started by mindlessly attacking his foreign trained seniors who were present there, not an attack on their ideas but a simple lashing out. The lashing covered a battle he had had at his Kelaniya University, perhaps decades ago when he started one of his excavations. In his tantrums, it became clear that he was not a great fan of Sri Lanka history; he also appeared in his remarks to mix up history” with historiography – the methodology of history. I had been earlier exposed to his lack of even school boy history when a few years ago, he chaired a meeting at Anuradapura on the archaeology of Abhayagiri. I was amazed that he did not know that the monastery came to be named after Giri the Jain, as any child would know. Clearly he was not a great sympathiser for Sri Lanka civilisation and so not an enthusiast for cultural tourism. Practitioners of medicine (and engineering) can be sued in courts for malpractice including from ignorance. As I heard this uninformed PGIAR tirade, I began to wonder if this was the Post Graduate Institute of Medicine would there be lawsuits for malpractice.

Tourism is not only money, but also for soft power, in our case promoting Buddhist sites, as already used by India. And in the future, tourist money will be from Asian countries, almost all influenced by Buddhism. The Sri Lankan population is all stakeholders in the tourist (and archaeology) industry. And we should push the tourist authorities and the industry to exploit the new markets in Asia. For Asians, not just those from South East Asia but further east, Sri Lanka has loomed in their collective imagination as a seat of Buddhism. And so our ancient sites can and must be exploited for both tourism as well as soft power. For Asians, Sri Lanka has the longest continuous unbroken Buddhist heritage in the world.

One Response to “Tourists to Angkor Wat and Bagan: Why Anuradhapura ignored”

  1. NAK Says:

    Several tourist drivers I spoke to discourage tourists from visiting cultural site claiming that it take too much time. They simply drive them around the stupas and show them through the car windows.
    They prefer to take them shopping which is profitable than promoting culture!

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