My latest journey in search of greener pastures, in a natural sense, led me to the island of Sri Lanka last week.
In fewer than four hours, I was transported from the bright yellow and beige hues of the Emirati desert to the deep and rich green shades of the Ceylonese hills and plains. What drew me to the island nation was the fact it has not yet been overrun by mass tourism.
For three long decades, a civil war destabilised the country, dissuading many potential visitors from its otherwise appealing beaches, forests and hills.
Even though this has started to change, with the tourism industry rising exponentially since the end of the conflict in 2009, much of the country’s natural beauty remains unspoilt.
Upon mentioning my Emirati origins, I was surprised to hear many had lived and worked in the UAE.
The first of many of these encounters occurred shortly after my arrival, with a driver at the airport surprising me when he spoke with an Emirati dialect.
Not only had the Sri Lankan native lived in the UAE for more than 25 years – more time than I have spent in my home country – but he had also retained many Emirati mannerisms picked up while working with Emirati families. Time and again I crossed paths with Sri Lankans who had worked long stints in the UAE and could converse fluently in colloquial Arabic with an Emirati dialect.
Thinking they would be content in the beauty of their tropical island, I was taken aback when these individuals all communicated their longing to return to the UAE.
No doubt they were attracted to the many opportunities available to them in the Emirates, but these were not citizens fleeing an impoverished, stagnant nation. Sri Lanka has, in fact, doubled its per capita income, halved its poverty rate and significantly reduced its unemployment rate since 2005.
This economic growth has accelerated since the end of the war, with a GDP growth of 8.3 per cent in 2011 alone.
Despite Sri Lanka’s economic rise, these citizens’ desire to return to the UAE was also rooted in the enjoyable experience they had had working and living in the Emirates. This underlined a detail previously unbeknown to me and many others in the Emirates – UAE-Sri Lankan ties are strong and growing stronger.
Close to 300,000 Sri Lankans currently reside in the UAE, with almost half of them in white-collar positions. In the Gulf region, the UAE is the largest export market for, the largest source of imports to, and the largest investor in Sri Lanka.
With six airlines flying between the two nations, and an Emirati airline set to be the first foreign carrier to Sri Lanka’s new airport which opened this week, the UAE has now become the greatest tourist supplier among the Gulf countries to Sri Lanka, as well as Sri Lankan businessmen increasingly using the UAE as a hub.
A fear of contributing to the burgeoning tourism, which might lead to the demise of such stunning nature, overcame me before I began writing.
But as I have discovered, the secret of the gem that is Sri Lanka is already out and should be enjoyed by those in the Emirates and benefited by those on the island.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US
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