x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sri Lanka eager to boost tourism since end of bloody war

Traveller's world One country that's proving it's possible to bounce back after difficult times is Sri Lanka.

There have been a few welcome tales of resilience and hope in the news coverage of the trio of natural disasters that have ransacked Indonesia, Samoa and the Philippines over the past two weeks. One country that's proving it's possible to bounce back after difficult times is Sri Lanka, the small island nation at the foot of India that was until recently in the grip of a vicious civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers; a conflict that claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people over 26 years.

Since the bloody end of the conflict in the north of the country in May, Sri Lanka's tourism authorities have been looking at the number of tourists visiting the country with a growing sense of anticipation. Figures released by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority for July show the total number of visitors from around the world up by 28 per cent compared with the same month last year, with the number of tourists from the Middle East up by 103.7 per cent. August brought equally positive headline figures: visitor numbers were up 34.3 per cent in total compared with last year.

An increase in bookings with Dnata Holidays confirms that Sri Lanka is gaining momentum as a short break destination in this region; it was the third most popular destination for Eid breaks, behind the Maldives and Turkey, according to Nathan Adams, the general manager. "Sri Lanka has always been on the radar with consumers," he says. "I think the war had probably taken away that kind of shine from Sri Lanka, and ... with the war receding, people are now looking at the destination again."

Any lingering concerns over safety may have been eased by bargain basement rates of up to 50 per cent off at well-known hotels and resorts such as Aman and Taj over what is traditionally Sri Lanka's low season. Bookings may be up but the sunbeds are not yet all taken according to one recent visitor, Mark, who lives in Abu Dhabi and recently spent a fortnight travelling around the country from Colombo across to Kandy and down to Galle. "At the six hotels we stayed in," he says, "we were the only guests in five of them." Not that wandering vacant corridors spoilt the trip: "It was fantastic. It's a beautiful country," he says.

It is precisely this kind of positive feedback that Bernard Goonetilleke, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Promotion Bureau and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, hopes will bring more visitors, particularly from the Middle East. Sri Lanka has thousands of years of civilisation, wildlife parks, mountains, outdoor activities such as hiking, even whale watching, to attract visitors as well as lovely beaches, Goonetilleke says. With one eye on the competition, he adds: "Sri Lanka is not the Maldives which can offer only the sea."

This long list of attractions may not be enough to lure some according to Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsibletravel.com, an online travel agent that promotes sustainable holidays. He believes that a small number will have been put off by alleged human rights abuses committed by the government during the conflict; abuses that have brought discussions of EU trade sanctions. Not to mention the controversy over the continuing presence of internment camps where some 250,000 ethnic Tamils are being held in the north of the country, an area which is closed to tourism with travel advisory notices from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office warning against all travel there. "This is not isolated from the tourism industry," Francis says. "It affects the reputation of the tourist destination ...

"I think a small proportion of tourists would rule out the destination outright based on past actions of the government but I think a large proportion will be asking tougher questions of themselves and of the places that they are going to stay and of the types of tours they are going to do, than they have done in the past." I put it to Goontilleke that the recent violence would deter some tourists; he said that the government regretted "very much the effects of the conflict particularly on the civilian population ... It was a harrowing experience for civilians, as well as members of the armed forces who had to fight very hard to free the country that was under a very brutal regime which was a terrorist organisation."

Sri Lanka has big plans to boost the number of tourists - and fast. By 2011, which the tourism authority has dubbed "Visit Sri Lanka" year, it hopes to welcome 700,000 to 750,000 visitors; a sizeable increase on the predicted total of more than 415,000 visitors this year. The government has set an even bolder target of 2.5 million tourists by 2016, an influx that will require some 36,000 additional rooms. Francis, who recently met with representatives from the tourism authority is concerned by the prospect of such vast numbers. Sri Lanka is facing a choice, he says: either to develop as fast as possible, or to develop more sustainably for the long-term.

"I am very unclear as to which path they are going to choose," he says. "Understandably, there is pressure from within the country because their tourism industry has been nowhere near as successful as bigger destinations such as India; there is a feeling that they have missed out for many years. And, as a destination that has its fair share of poor communities, there is an understandable desire to develop as fast as possible.

"My caution is that in taking that opportunity they don't stuff it up and I think there is a very real risk that they will, to be honest." Land is currently being parcelled out to developers in the east of the country but Goonetilleke is sanguine about the future of tourism in Sri Lanka, a country he describes as a "green, green, green island". He believes that there is enough oversight in place by both government and non-governmental organisations to prevent the country from becoming a concrete-clad carbuncle. "We are very confident that there will be no haphazard building of hotels or resorts," he says. "We are very pleased that as a result of the conflict that went on for many years, we were unable to develop the eastern coast, and now we are ready to do so. When we do it we will be doing it according to set very rigid regulations."

Goonetilleke likens Sri Lanka to Cambodia, two nations afflicted by terrible conflict, one of which has built a successful tourism industry almost out of nothing. "Cambodia had very limited numbers of visitors, but today Cambodia gets more than two million visitors and that was possible after the security situation improved." The fact that Cambodia is almost three times the size of Sri Lanka to be able to absorb such numbers is apparently not part of the calculation. Perhaps the answer is to go now before the masses - a decision that would no doubt please the tourism board.

cdight@thenational.ae