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Holding the (colonial) fort in times of gentrification

On the south coast of Sri Lanka is a colonial fort. Since it became a world heritage site, the fortified town of Galle has suddenly become a major tourist attraction. This has its pros and cons, says PhD candidate Uditha Jinadasa. PhD defence on 12 March.

Why do tourists from all over the world flock to Fort Galle?

‘The European colonists – the Portuguese, Dutch and British – built many forts in South and Southeast Asia, and the fort in Galle is the best preserved example in the entire region. What is more, it is the largest colonial monument in Sri Lanka, and the only fully walled city. What is special is that citizens have always lived within the city walls, since colonial times already. That attracts a lot of tourists – and visitors from Sri Lanka too: I went there a couple of times on school trips when I was young.’

You write that the town has undergone ‘drastic and constant changes.’ What kind of changes did you see?

‘I researched what has happened to the architecture, demography, economy and city culture since Fort Galle became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Since then, this fortified town has become a tourist hotspot, and that is clear to see. The percentage of residential buildings dropped from 72% to 32% between 1992 and 2016 while the percentage of commercial buildings rose from 17 to 35%. More than half of the buildings currently have something to do with the tourist industry. Many new boutique hotels, villas, cafés, restaurants, designer clothing stores and souvenir shops have sprung up in recent decades.’

Similar developments can also be seen in Amsterdam or Venice. What has been the effect of this on the town’s residents?

‘This gentrification has caused the number of residents in the town to decrease by two-thirds, from a population of 2,703 in 1988 to 1,068 today. Many amenities have also disappeared from Galle: tourist shops have replaced bakeries, chemists, bridal shops and computer repair shops. And in 2016, 16% of the real estate was in the hands of foreign investors. The fort now feels a bit artificial because the residential function has largely vanished.’

Does this mean that the situation has worsened in the fort?

‘No, you can’t really say that because in other ways the original residents are doing very well. Land increased in value, which was economically beneficial to the local community.. And many people from Galle Fort now earn a living in the tourist industry with their own restaurants and bed and breakfasts. The standard of living has increased as a result.’

You are an archaeologist, so you also looked at conservation of the fort. What does the influx of tourists mean for the architecture?

‘Since 1988, work has been done on no less than 66% of the building facades. This could mean doing up verandas, restoring the use of colour and fixing the roofs. Overall, 36% of the buildings are in line with the colonial architecture, but 44% are not. In addition, much less attention is paid to the parts behind the facades. There you regularly see illegal third floors or swimming pools being built. And too little attention is paid to conserving the courtyard gardens – a typically colonial phenomenon.’

One last question: should changes be made to the conservation policy?

‘We should try to reduce the negative effects. I think we should preserve the residential function of Galle Fort because the historical city and local community depend on each other. The best way to achieve this is to involve the residents in managing this World Heritage Site. That will also help promote the feeling of ownership.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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This research was funded in part by Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education.

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