UK notes “sad state” in Lanka

Britain says if the decision to deny entry to a British national with the Buddha tattoo to Sri Lanka recently was made partly on the basis that his safety could have been at risk, then it tells a sad story about the growing levels of religious anxiety in a country usually famed for its hospitality towards visitors.

Deputy British High Commissioner Robbie Bulloch, in a blog posting on the UK Foreign Office website, said that while visitors need to be better informed and respectful of the countries they are visiting, a degree of understanding and tolerance is also desirable on the part of the hosts.

The British national was denied entry at the Bandaranaika International Airport after a Buddha tattoo was seen on his arm.

Bullock’s blog posting said:

A few weeks ago a British man was refused entry to Sri Lanka because he had a large visible tattoo of Buddha on his arm.  Sri Lankan immigration officials took the view that it would cause offence and concluded that he should not enter the country.  Initial reports suggested that the visitor had also voiced disrespect towards Buddhism although the man later declared that he was himself a Buddhist and that far from being an insult, the tattoo demonstrated his affiliation to the religion. Whatever the truth behind the conflicting reports, this is a good example of how tourism can result in cultural misunderstandings.

Of course, part of the reason that we travel is to experience different cultures.  That entails being sensitive to the communities we visit and ensuring that we are aware of different cultural norms.  On the other side, countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives which open themselves up to large scale tourism need to be prepared for the fact that people with very different perspectives and values will visit their shores.  Glossy marketing and the relative ease of global transport can mask the fact that tourist destinations often have very different customs to those found in liberal western cities.

Had the visitor read our Travel Advice (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/sri-lanka) he would have seen that we caution against causing perceived insult to Buddhism.  This advice has now been updated to include a specific reference to tattoos.  The man with the tattoo of Buddha claimed that he was exercising his right to free expression.   That’s a right strongly promoted and defended by the UK government. We also recognise that such freedoms are necessarily limited where such expression has a negative impact on others (e.g. racist language).  Arguably a better informed traveller might have had the awareness to cover his tattoo while visiting a country with strong views on Buddhist iconography.

But while visitors need to be better informed and respectful of the countries they are visiting, a degree of understanding and tolerance is also desirable on the part of the hosts.  In Maldives, for example, this means having to balance traditional Islamic customs which outlaw alcohol and revealing clothing with providing a relaxed environment for tourists who pay a lot of money for a well-earned holiday in paradise.  This has been managed in Maldives through a clear separation between resort islands and those inhabited by Maldivians, but the cultural differences have nevertheless given rise to tensions.

In Sri Lanka, while many see the economic opportunities offered by increasing visitor numbers, there are also concerns amongst some local people that traditional livelihoods and cultures are coming under threat.  And while many tourists enjoy exploring new destinations and cultures, they also need to feel that they are safe and protected in areas less accustomed to foreigners.

It’s been reported that the decision to deny entry to the man with the Buddha tattoo was made partly on the basis that his safety could have been at risk.  That could well be the case, but if so, it tells a sad story about the growing levels of religious anxiety in a country usually famed for its hospitality towards visitors. (Colombo Gazette)