Heritage Tourism. Who Benefits?

May 20, 201417 min read

daya dissanayake

Tourism & Heritage. Who benefits?

Heritage Tourism Today

At 3.45 pm on April 5th, I visited Angkor Wat, for the first time, thanks to Dr. Sanjay Garg. You can also visit Angkor Wat, or the Taj Mahal, even from here. All you have to do is open Google Street View. That is how I visited the heritage site, and not as a tourist.

CHTSD. Cultural heritage, Tourism and Sustainable Development is the theme today. Sustainable Development is a contradiction of terms. All development means destruction. The environment is the first victim. Second is the culture. Tourism is one of the the main culprits in destroying culture and heritage. Culture is also the enemy of nature. From prehistoric times there has been a battle Culture vs. Nature.

There is a common belief that promoting heritage spaces among tourists benefits the country, her people and the tourists. However a close investigation of the visitors to the heritage sites, the interest shown by them about the sites, the information available to the visitors, and the benefits to the country and the people around the site, raises doubts on all counts. Tourism, like all other industries, leads to over consumption of natural resources and over production of waste. Tourism also demeans the local population, making them servile as waiters, cooks, cleaners, etc, and as prostitutes.

When we talk of cultural heritage where do we draw the line? In our country is it only the buildings and spaces which had come to being over the past 2600 years, when India first invaded Lanka, according to our chronicles, or to 4,300 years to settlements and burial sites in Haldummulla and Ranchamadama, or Maha Eliya much earlier. Do we consider Hunugalgala as a heritage or sacred space, where Prof. Raj Somadeva found these artefacts of human genitalia, which may have been used for fertility or pre-natal rituals. Or do we go back 35,000 years to the time of the people who lived in the Fahien caves., or 1.5 million years, if we find sufficient evidence about human settlements in Jaffna, based on the Acheulean axes found from Mayakkai in Point Pedro. The Colomboscope 2014, trying to keep us entrapped within a colonial mindset, considered the 19th century Whist Bangalow at Modara in Colombo, built by a Britisher and even the Rio Cinema of the early 1980s for 70mm films, as heritage sites.

If we accept pre-historic settlements also as heritage sites, then the entire earth surface could be a heritage site. We would not be able to build a house, open up cultivations, build roads or do anything in the name of culture or civilization. We have to draw the line somewhere, both in time and space.

'Heritage could be defined as anything of national significance which is handed down and preserved through generations. It is inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations'. This is the definition of heritage for the school textbooks by the National Institute of Education.

Our pre-history is also of national significance.

Kuragala, in the Sabaragamuwa Province has been in the news for the past few years. Is it a heritage site or a religious site? Caves had been gifted to Buddhist monks around 2300 years ago. The Sufi Saint Sheike Muhitadeen Abdul Qadir Jilani, had arrived in the 12th century and meditated for twelve years. Recent Archaeological excavations had discovered a skeleton which is said to be 8000 years old, and evidence of settlements going back 15,000 years. We do not know what further excavations would yield. Perhaps the drip ledges too could have been done during the pre-Buddhist era. The conflict today is between some sections of the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Though there is no conflict, as a most visited religious space, Tirupati has also been claimed by Ambedkar and Jamanadas as being originally a Mahayana Buddhist site, with the statue of Avalaokiteshwara Bodisattva1, and there is also evidence of pre-historic settlements.

There is no conflict at Ellora, which appears to be a heritage space only, though it would have been a religious space during different periods, for Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. Today it is just a cultural heritage space. Once at Ellora, when a group of European tourists were posing for photos seated at the feet of a Buddha statue, I tried to point out to their guide that it was wrong. He defended the action saying, "It is only a statue". That is also probably how Mahatma Gandhi saw the Kajuraho carvings, only as erotic images of which Indians should be ashamed.

The Dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz at Ajmer in Rajasthan, is an example of mass invasion by pilgrims, mostly local, which has turned this religious heritage space into a place extremely overcrowded, almost unmanageable and far from what the place would have been when the saint had been in meditation there and it is not a place for a true Sufi to find peace.

Ram Tirth near Amritsar in Punjab is claimed to be a cultural heritage site, where Valmiki is said to have written the Ramayana and where Sita's children had grown up. But today it is also a religious site where Valimiki has been deified, but the site is almost completely eclipsed and forgotten because of the attraction of the Golden Temple a few kilometers away, which has become more a tourist attraction as a heritage site than a religious space, almost pushing out the true devotees.

Heritage Business and Politics

Though Heritage is what we value as a people and choose to pass on to future generations, there have been many instances where this heritage and the heritage spaces have been used to rouse communal, racial and religious conflict and hatred. There have been conflicts on the claims for these sites, and restrictions on visits. One reason for such conflicts has been the revenue generated from tourism. The other reason is political.

Today Heritage is a potentially profitable, audience attracting business. Certain sites around the world have become great money spinners, not only for the administrators of the site, but for those who offer infrastructure facilities and to the traders. Unfortunately, by trying to make heritage an economic asset, and trying to conserve and maintain the heritage site as a self-supporting venture, it could cause immeasurable, irreversible harm. Commodification demeans the heritage, and in the end would mean its destruction. Commodification also affects the environment, the ecological balance and causes the displacement of people and animals from around the heritage sites. Where heritage and culture are intertwined, promoting heritage tourism affect the culture adversely.

A problem we face today is the overlapping of heritage and culture tourism. One reason is because it is often the same visitors who are targeted. But Heritage Tourism is fixed to specific spaces in a land, and they are mostly of historical value and their physical form has to be preserved. People have to visit such places personally, people have to climb a mountain, walk several miles and follow certain restrictions. The Culture is movable, it is displayed by people, who can move, who can shift their stage sets and their equipment and instruments, they can go to the people, or gather them in one place. Culture is not a static object or system, it keeps on evolving and changing and it is impossible to preserve it as it had been even a few years ago. This means even if the cultural and heritage tourisms overlap, the issues, the problems, the effects, are very different.

A heritage site could be a sacred space for one community, and there would be a strict code about visiting such sites. But for many visitors it would be just a tourist attraction, a historical building or a work of art. They may not understand, or realize any religious significance. This leads to conflict when tourists do not understand the local culture and religious practices, and they are not informed by the tour guides or the administrators of the sites. Tourism Management is often limited to selling tickets, and having a few security guards around.

Heritage is of immense value to the indigenous people of the region. It is our legacy from the past, what has been left for us by our ancestors, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Most such spaces are sacred to us, or to some section of our people. It is our responsibility to preserve them, and ensure that they are not defiled, damaged, or destroyed, by people who visit them with no knowledge of their real value.

Our heritage should never be promoted for tourists. Anyone who is interested in a heritage space should be able to find out information on his own, with all the data available in cyberspace, and they would find their way to visit this space. Such people would understand the cultural and historical value of such a space, would respect it and would not intentionally cause any harm.

Are we really trying to promote heritage tourism? Sometime back the Archeological Department banned photography and even making sketches at archeological sites. The excuse given then was that such photographs were used for commercial purposes. I do not know if this regulation is still in force, but there are restrictions for the visitors. Recently I saw some beautiful night photographs taken by Keerthi Amarasekara at Galviharays, in Polonnaruwa. But he had to get special permission from the Archeological Department to visit the site at night. A true connoisseur of our ancient sculptures or architecture should have the freedom to visit such sites at any time of day or night, and spend as much time as he wished. Sigiriya gardens or the summit would be a wonderful place to spend the night, so would be Ajantha. A true lover of such a place would never be a threat and never even dream of harming such treasures. But there is also the practical difficulty of identifying the genuine lover of art and a person who could abuse or harm such a place. It happened at Sigiriya several decades ago.

Most tourists travel to our country to lie on the beach, relax, do shopping, and have fun. Out of the one million tourists last year there would have been a small minority who were definitely interested in our heritage sites, but we do not have any idea how many were pedophiles. Deborah McLaren, in 'Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel' says "Sri Lanka and the Philippines attract the highest rates of pedophiles." (p.84)2. Sri Lanka is also listed as a popular sex tourism destination at sextoursim.net3.

While we try to promote heritage some of them come seeking other pleasures.

Some of the South Asian tourists spend more time shopping, than at heritage or religious sites, in our country and in India. SLTDA reports that in 2012, 74.4% or 748,000 had declared their purpose of visit as pleasure. Only 2.2%, or just 5,018 out of one million had declared religious and cultural as the purpose of visit. Others would have visited heritage sites, because it is part of their arranged tour, or out of curiosity, or for them to go back home and talk about them. If the figures are correct, only 61,392 tourists have visited Anuradhapura, and 5,115 visited Galle. Sigiriya had the most visitors, 284,964, but how many of them would have really seen Sigiriya for what it is? Very often, the visitors are so busy taking photographs that they do not have time to see anything around them. They really see the site they visited only when they go home and go through the photographs.

One of the most flouted heritage space in our country is Sigiriya. For our own people it is just one hard climb, puffing and panting. For some of them it is a torture. They do not have the time and they are not in a mood to appreciate what is around them, even the frescoes. As they get down from the vehicle, the guide or tour leader would announce a time limit, when they have to return, the same way they would be dropped at a shopping mall. For those who are strong enough to reach the summit, at least they have a view of the surrounding country side. The foreign tourists are taken straight up to see the frescoes, and then to the summit. I have never seen even one percent of these visitors, both local and foreign, who spare a glance at the mirror-like wall. Even if they do, it is just another wall for them. When I wrote my novel Katbitha, people have asked me where is the Katapath Pawura in Sigiriya, that they had not seen it on their visits. We hardly see any tour guide explaining the significance of the wall. If they explain, perhaps the tourists would realize that it is the oldest social media site on earth, 1500 years before facebook was built. The Western precinct is only a path leading to the rock, with a few half broken walls and foundations. They do not pause at the miniature water garden, to try to imagine what it would have been to be seated here, listening to the water flowing slowly over the pebbles, watching the frescos on the rock face, and the garden leading up to the rock. Would they stop to imagine what it would have been like, as they walked along the water garden, the boulder garden and then how many would see the Octagonal pond or the Cobra Hood Cave?

To see the entire Sigiri complex a visitor would need at least two full days, if it is to be appreciated as a heritage space. We need more time at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. to visit the museums and get an understanding of what it would have been in the past, the art and technology of the era. How many tourists would have seen the Sakwala Chakra or the Gold fish pond, or the stone bridge near Mahakanadarawa tank, or how they would have been built?

This is not unique to Sri Lanka. At Ajanta and Ellora, foreign and diaspora tourists and, native tourists from all over India, rush through them like it is a task they have to get over with. Most of them cover all 29 caves, within about an hour or two, pausing only to take photographs of the paintings and the sculptures, and more of themselves. To study each cave in detail, would need a minimum of one week. It is the same at Ellora, with its 34 rock-cut temples stretching over 2 km. People spend more time traveling to these sites from Aurangabad, than they spend at the caves.

At Khajuraho, most people are simply attracted by the carvings, which they see as simply erotic art, without any consideration of the religious significance, and Mahatma Gandhi had wanted to destroy them, feeling ashamed that the Western tourists would see them as obscene, but it was Gurudev Tagore who managed to prevent the destruction.

A foreign visitor to Kandy, unless he is made aware of the significance and the history of the Tooth Relic, for him it is only a religious building. Then at Galle, how many of even our local tourists would be aware that the Galle Fort is probably the largest Dutch Fort in South Asia (even though it is nothing for us to boast of), and that inside the fort is preserved four different cultures, the Portuguese, the Dutch, The British and later the Muslim. And there is also one Buddhist temple. Perhaps this is the only such preserved historical space in the world. How many would have heard of the claim that the Galle port could have been Tarshish mentioned in the Old Testament.

We can go on about all our heritage sites in this manner. Even closer to Colombo, Kelaniya is as much a heritage space as it is a religious space. From the legendary visit of the Buddha, how it had continued to be a Buddhist place of worship, the destruction caused by the Portuguese, and the reconstruction, the paintings and the sculptures, If we are to promote it as a heritage site these are things that have to be highlighted, or just show them as a mere cultural site. That is where we have to have some distinction between a heritage site and a cultural site.

The heritage explosion today with commercial tv programs, interactive heritage museums and light and sound shows are all misleading. No one today can rightly imagine how an ancient building and the surroundings would have looked, how the people were dressed. By trying to thrust our imagination on the curious visitor we are insulting the visitor and our ancient people too. An example is the diorama created in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, based on the 3.6 million year old footprints found in Tanzania.

When ancient heritage sites are promoted for tourism, often the priority is to open up the sites for visitors. Then protection and conservation are not the major concern. Sometimes the restoration work is carried out so carelessly, often using the wrong stone slabs or pillars on the buildings, or placing the statues in the wrong places, which is an insult to our ancient builders. This photo is from an ancient Buddhist monastery, where you see the crude way the base of the walls had been restored. This next photo is of the placement of the statues, which has made many local visitors to believe they are the statues of Kavantissa and Vihara Maha Devi, worshipping Buddha..

There is also a lot of questionable information about our heritage sites. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, on their website states that "Anuradhapura is also significant in Hindu legend as the fabled capital of the Asura King Ravana in the Ramayana." Who is this Ravana they are describing, is it Valmiki's Ravana, or our own ancestor, and what evidence do they have to make such a statement? SLTDA lists Sripada or Adam's Peak as a tourist attraction. Is it a heritage site or religious site? Why should we promote it as a tourist site? If tourists want to climb a Sri Lanka mountain, why promote Sripada for that?

There are so many examples I could bring up, to site just one, sometime ago I found a travel brochure where Avukana Buddha statue had been described as 'Sun Eating' Buddha.4

Perhaps we should adopt the policy of Bhutan. "High value - low volume" tourism, controlling the type and quantity of tourism. They believe that 'the unrestricted flow of tourism can have negative impacts on Bhutan's pristine environment and its rich and unique culture.'


I accept that there is a need for heritage tourism. People around the world should be able to see how our ancestors had lived and what they had left behind.

The future of heritage tourism, using digital and audio visual technology, could be a solution, providing an opportunity to see all heritage spaces around the world, at virtually no cost, while also preserving the spaces and the environment. They could be Virtual Destinations. Digital simulation and non-corporeal travel. Virtual destinations would be like reading an e-book. Virtual travel also is a solution to avoid any cultural or religious misunderstandings or conflicts, specially when a cultural or sacred space is claimed by different communities.

We could see all the heritage sites in the world, on our own time, in our own private space, at leisure, enjoying and learning at our own pace, not rushing through a site in the hot sun, heavy rain or biting cold, spending many hours in travel just to visit a place for a few minutes, and seeing it as if in a dream.

Let us plan for armchair tourism when it comes to our heritage. It may not bring us revenue, but it would preserve our heritage and it will also provide an opportunity to everyone around the world to see and appreciate them.

And this future is already here with us. That is what I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation. I visited Angkor Wat relaxed in bed, with my laptop. The Carbon footprint I left would have been negligible, it was only to power my laptop, my wifi connection and the equipment of my internet service provider and a server somewhere. I did not cause any pollution, disturb the culture or the environment around Angkor Wat, but I was able to spend all the time I wanted, at any place around and inside this great heritage space. Some of you will not agree with me, saying it is not like visiting Angor Wat personally. I could spend the whole day arguing with you, but let me just end this saying we have to accept the reality.

Digital technology and virtual reality are probably the only means of achieving 'Sustainable Tourism' till someday more advanced technology is available.

daya dissanayake


2McLaren, Deborah. Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel. 2nd ed. 2003

3Some countries as a whole are renowned for being popular sex tourism destinations – particularly countries in south-east Asia including Thailand. Other popular countries include Sri Lanka, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Cuba and Kenya.


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