The recent arrest of a British nurse for displaying a Buddha tattoo in Sri Lanka is another reminder of the importance of being aware of, and respectful toward, local customs when travelling overseas. Naomi Coleman is not the first traveller to be arrested for offending Buddhist sensibilities in Sri Lanka; British tourist Antony Ratcliffe was arrested for displaying a Buddha tattoo in March 2013, and three French travellers were arrested for disrespecting a Buddha statue in the country in 2012.
Even celebrities are not exempt from the perils of causing offence while travelling. RnB star Akon was forced to cancel a live show in Sri Lanka in 2010, after producing a video with scantily-clad models dancing around a Buddha statue, and drummer James Kottak, from rock band The Scorpions, was arrested in Dubai on 3 April 2014, after allegedly insulting Islam during a drunken stopover at Dubai airport.
Never assume that your own beliefs give you protection from causing offence to local people. Ignorance is unlikely to be accepted as an excuse by the people who are offended by your actions. Antony Ratcliffe was arrested for his Buddha tattoo despite being a practicing Buddhist, and a Dutch traveller was arrested and held for two days over a Buddha tattoo in 2013, despite being of Sri Lankan extraction.
It always pays to read up about local customs and attitudes before you travel to ensure your trip is trouble free. Covering up a Buddha tattoo during your holiday is a lot less hassle than being arrested and deported back to your home country. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) specifically warns travellers to Sri Lanka about the dangers of offending local sensibilities:
‘The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for this. British nationals have been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of Buddha. Don’t pose for photographs by standing in front of a statue of Buddha.’
The key message is to be aware of how local people behave, and to be doubly aware of your own behaviour while travelling in someone else’s country. What might seem harmless at home – pointing your feet at a Buddha statue, for example – could be seen as openly insulting by the people who live in the country you are visiting. This is summed up neatly in the famous quote from American broadcaster Clifton Fadiman:
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Joe Bindloss - Destination Editor for India and the Subcontinent. Follow his tweets @joe_planet.