Friday, September 28, 2007

World Tourism Day

So, could you tell yesterday was World Tourism Day? Did you even notice that the theme was "Tourism Opens Doors for Women." Well, that could be because it was very poorly organized and advertised, even in the host country (which is Sri Lanka, by the way).
Apparently, tourism only opens doors to the already wealthy as we had quite a time getting information on how to participate in the events. There was a great deal of lip-service paid to how tourism offers wonderful opportunities for women to earn money and such, but the panel, made up of mostly well-to-do women who had held high Tourism Department positions in their respective countries, didn't seem interested in real-world situations. They talked a lot about how great community-based tourism is and how that is the trend for the future, etc., but the festivities were held in the Taj Exotica, an Indian owned, extremely fancy hotel in Bentota. Walled off from the world, we sat in a freezing, air-con ballroom and talked about the opportunities to alleviate poverty through tourism.

There were some women who brought up the negatives associated with tourism also -- child abuse, sex trade, drugs, etc. I am glad one person mentioned that though these things can be exasperated by tourism, tourism is not the root cause. I'm glad as I've heard several times that tourism "brought" these things to Sri Lanka, which is absolutely not true.

The event I attended, a "think tank" on women in tourism, was chaired by the former Minister of Tourism for Pakistan. She was very interesting, clearly very involved in empowering women and such, but also very realistic. Also fascinating, she continued to fast during the conference. Rashad, who came from Arugambay for the event, said he would make the time up after Ramadan was over -- which apparently is allowed (I think he has to do extra time for breaking the fast, but I'm not sure about that).

Harshana and Rashad were two of a handful of men. I'm glad they were there because I'm always going on about how we need to engage more women in our tourism projects, so hopefully this provided some reinforcement. They both said it was interesting and useful to be there, which also makes me happy as I was slightly worried that they would think it a waste of time as men tend to feel towards topics related to women.

Rashad did mention that we can't do anything about husbands not wanting their wives to work as that is the culture here. I really struggle with this concept and thought about mentioning it during the proceedings (but it was pretty clear they didn't want to hear from a Westerner). Why is it that it is acceptable to mistreat a person when it is part of the culture? Aren't some cultural norms allowed to be discarded because they are abusive? During the coastal restoration workshop a very intelligent and thoughtful woman told me this was the first training of this sort to which she was "allowed" to attend as her husband did not like her away overnight. I asked if she wanted to participate in such trainings and she said of course (she works for the Coastal Conservation Department). I told Rashad that if the wife wants to stay at home that is her decision, but if she wants to work and study, or whatever, I don't see how it can be alright to claim traditions and force her to stay home.

Another thing that is starting to bother me (thought I occasionally take advantage of it, especially when I need a restroom) is the power of being Western. We came to the hotel a few days ago to see the facilities (we were told we'd have a table, which was not true) and the hotel staff would only talk to me even though it was really Manurie that needed the information. For the tourism event I signed the local representative list with my colleagues, but when it came time to see who was attending the evening festivities they only asked me if I would attend. My name was the only one on their list from Sewalanka. I came with three colleagues, what makes them think they'll sit around the hotel while I go off to see some cultural show? And I wasn't there representing a member of WTO (that's World Tourism Organization, not trade) or anything, so why should I get special treatment? So I didn't attend.

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