COLOMBO — One word—tourism—glows on the horizon of hope for Sri Lanka. It is reflected in the surfeit of reportage and advertisements in the local press, where the talk of new city hotels in the capital and planned boutique hotels in exotic, tropical settings dominate.
This sentiment is understandable, given the manner in which the South Asian nation is being promoted to globe trotters by trend-setting publications. Lonely Planet, the bible of backpackers, rewarded the island with a glowing tribute, declaring it the No. 1 destination for its low-budget flock for 2013. Travelers on the other end, the well-heeled jet-setters, have been encouraged likewise by the up-market press. Such globally renowned glossies as Conde Nast and National Geographic and broadsheets like the New York Times have ranked the country among the top five tourism hotspots over the past three years.
That these words are being heeded is evident in the steady rise in tourist arrivals. Last year saw a record 1 million holidaymakers fly in to explore a country that had, until May 2009, endured a nearly 30-year-long civil war, pitting government troops against the Tamil Tiger armed separatists.
The military victory for the government, following a brutal final phase, has resulted in an opening up of vast stretches of the country hitherto closed for the tourist trade. So, in addition to visiting the country’s historic Sinhalese kingdoms, its mist-covered mountains where tea is grown, and beaches along the southwest coast, foreign guests have a longer list to choose from. Visitors can now watch dolphins and whales (including the prized blue), go surfing and snorkeling, and explore game reserves famed for their wild elephants and leopards.
Yet it appears that the reported US $1.3 billion tourism brought to the national coffers from showcasing the country’s cultural and natural wealth is not enough for the government. The administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to tap another rich vein to rake in what some analysts here say could earn the country close to $1 billion annually: Indians with deep pockets and a taste for gambling, who are being eyed as the main draw for the planned expansion of casino tables in the capital. Colombo, the argument goes, will be a shorter distance, a more convenient location and a more culturally familiar setting for these high rollers from the subcontinent than Singapore or Macau, where many now fly for some high-stakes fun.
A marquee venture, consequently, is enjoying a blaze of publicity. In the spotlight is Australian casino mogul James Packer, whose renowned Crown Group has been given a “sweetheart deal” of up to 10 tax breaks to build a 36-storey entertainment complex in the Sri Lankan capital. The stake in the estimated $350 million venture, to house a 430-room hotel and a sprawling casino, will be shared by Packer (45 percent), his local partner Ravi Wijeratne (45 percent) and a still undisclosed Singapore-based body. Construction is due to start in November and the casino is expected to open its doors in 2016, the year the Sri Lankan government has targeted to see its in-bound tourism traffic hit 2.5 million arrivals.
The “Crown Complex,” as it is now being promoted, will be located on the banks of Colombo’s most storied body of water—the Beira Lake. The contours of the country’s colonial and post-colonial economy are still visible around the lake. Warehouses that store Sri Lanka’s famous export, tea, are located here. And now a casino strip is on the cards as a sign of the new direction the post-war economy is taking. In addition to Crown’s latest money spinner, Colombo’s already existing, albeit smaller, gaming establishments are to be relocated to an area that punters here call the “Colombo casino zone.” Among these eight, which have been around for over two decades, are a cluster owned by Mr. Wijeratne, Mr. Packer’s partner and a veteran in the trade. Casinos with names such as Marina Colombo, Stardust or Ballys have thrived on a flow of South Asian, East Asian and local punters.
But now the promise of a jackpot economy is heading into troubled waters. Hardly impressed by this new turn in the tourism industry are respected members of the clergy in this predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. “It is not for the public good,” warned Venerable Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Thera, the chief monk of the Asgiriya Buddhist order, Sri Lanka’s preeminent network of priests. “Foreigners don’t come here to go to casinos. We are completely against this.”
His verbal salvo broadcast on television has put the government on notice. “I have no political affiliations, but if this business is started, we will take to the streets against whoever supports it, be it government, ministers, parliamentarians or anybody else,” he asserted. “We will take to the streets against them all.”
Even an influential ally of Mr. Rajapaksa’s governing coalition in the Parliament has echoed similar concerns during a debate in the legislature. Sri Lanka does not need casinos to promote tourism, given the country’s natural and cultural heritage, argued Patali Champika Ranawaka, general secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks. Casinos, the minister for technology, research and atomic energy reminded the government, “goes against the state religion of Buddhism.”
A challenge to the casino trade has also been posed by the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), which has, until now, been generating newspaper headlines for campaigns led by its monks targeting the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities. It was against “all [gambling] entities, not just Packer,” a spokesman told the media.
They are views that cannot be taken lightly, given the political role Buddhist monks have played in Sri Lankan democracy since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. The weight of the clergy was pivotal during 1956 general elections, which saw a party the monks endorsed win. The voice of the clergy also shaped government policy during the three-decade-long conflict—they often supported tougher measures against the Tamil Tiger rebels and groups sympathetic to the Tamil minority cause. Such an overt role is rooted in the country’s history, where Buddhist monks were recognized for their political role as advisers to Sinhalese kings of the past.
The recent religious opposition is, in fact, a rare challenge to Mr. Rajapaksa, whose credentials as a political hero for the majority Sinhalese and a defender of Buddhism have rarely been challenged since he was first elected to power in 2005. And to limit the political fallout—yet keep the Packer casino venture on track—ministers have been rolled out to calm the religious waters by offering an innovative twist. The government “would not issue any new licenses to operate casinos,” Minister of Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane told the Daily News, a mouthpiece for the state. The casino at Packer’s Crown Complex would be integrated into an already existing, licensed gaming house owned by Mr. Wijeratne.
This Buddhist opposition, consequently, has generated a values debate in some quarters. “It has been argued that the licensing of gaming resorts would serve to corrupt the morals of the Sri Lankan people,” stated the Pathfinder Foundation, a think tank, in a commentary published in The Island, an independently owned English-language daily. “This is difficult to sustain given the multitude of gambling centers [for horse races run overseas], legal and illicit, that already exist in every nook and corner of urban and rural Sri Lanka.”
It is a discussion with precedents. The last time was when the country’s 2002 tourism master plan was unveiled and there were moves to rid Colombo of its 24-hour casinos located in popular shopping neighborhoods. There was a lobby to create a “Casino City” in Bentota, a popular beach front along the country’s southwestern coast.
“This time it is different, because of the large foreign investment involving Packer,” says a Sri Lankan punter, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The government will have to strike a balance, and it seems to be saying the right thing for now.”
Moderate Buddhist voices with an eye on the economy are calling for more understanding by pointing to the easy co-existence that continues at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, one of the country’s oldest and most respected Buddhist organizations. Its recent presidents, they say, hail from a family that continues to make its fortunes from bookmaking.
This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.