x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Terrorism is an unwelcome visitor yet again

Traveller's world The attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan, this week and the inevitable travel warnings that followed, is a stark reminder that tourism and terrorism make uneasy bedfellows.

What remains of the inland revenue building in Colombo, Sri Lanka after a rebel group's attack damaged it on Feb 20.
What remains of the inland revenue building in Colombo, Sri Lanka after a rebel group's attack damaged it on Feb 20.

The attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan, this week and the inevitable travel warnings that followed, is a stark reminder that tourism and terrorism make uneasy bedfellows. In Sri Lanka itself, the two have been living side by side thanks to the 30-year-old civil war there. In an unfortunate coincidence of timing, both the government and the rebels have been busy advancing quite separate agendas there in recent weeks.

On Feb 20, a Tamil Tiger aircraft crashed into the main tax office in the capital, Colombo, killing two people; and the Sri Lankan air force shot down a second plane close to the international airport. The Sri Lankan tourism authority - newly revamped and all set to launch its biggest ever campaign to attract visitors - issued a statement that no tourists were injured and that all pre-planned events were taking place as scheduled. The Colombo Fashion Week went ahead and the international airport was unaffected. The intended message? Life is back to normal and such isolated incidents will not hamper the Sri Lankan government's new tourism strategy.

Referring to the global marketing campaign starting in April, the government says: "This is expected to usher in a new era for Sri Lanka across the world after an imminent defeat of tiger separatists following a 30 year struggle [sic]." The big question is will it work? Can the government reassure tourists that the island is safe? Surprisingly, cancellations in the wake of the recent attack in Colombo are low - estimated to be no more than five per cent. The problem is not cancellations, however, but bookings. For the last two years, they have been dropping significantly. In 2006, the number of visitors to the island was almost 560,000; in 2007, it was just under 500,000; and last year, it was down to 438,475.

Then came the events of last October. The Tamil Tigers, in a switch of tactics, transported the war from the northern hinterland by striking close to the capital, killing 27 people. The beaches in the south remained untouched but Germany, Australia, Italy and France were among the countries that issued strong travel advisories to people against visiting the country and since then, bookings have gone into freefall. Figures released in January this year show a drop of 32 per cent on the previous year. The only market bucking the trend is the Middle East from where the number of travellers choosing to fly to Sri Lanka is growing not shrinking. That explains why the new tourism campaign will focus on this part of the world.

With a Muslim population of 18 per cent, the island will sell itself as being able to cater to the needs of holidaymakers here; with its halal food and convenient transport links - Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Royal Jordanian all offer direct flights. The good news for holidaymakers who chose to fly to Sri Lanka is that there are bargains galore on everything from restaurants and hotels to car rental and trips out. Several new hotels have opened since the devastating tsunami that struck the beaches in the south in December 2004. The average price for a decent hotel room in Colombo is $90 (Dh330), and $80 (Dh294) for a room at a beach resort. Packages booked via tour operators are even better value. All the island's hoteliers can do now is wait and hope.

Having spent my honeymoon there, it's hardly surprising that I view Venice as the most beautiful city in the world, and I'm not alone. More people put the so-called floating city at the top of their hotlist than anywhere else. The problem, according to the dwindling number of residents, is not only that the city is sinking - she is also drowning under the weight of tourists. At last week's carnival, Matteo Secchi, the son of a Venetian wine merchant, and 600 members of Venessia.com, a social networking site, organised a protest party on the Rialto, dressed up as American Indians. "The point was to show we feel like we are living on a reserve," said Secchi. Leaflets in five languages read: "Our cultural identity is at risk of dissolving if Venice becomes a theme park - we Venetians will not surrender!"

Secchi has been doing the sums. He checks the residency figures weekly and updates them on an electronic board that he has erected in a shop window on the Rialto. The local population, which peaked at 164,000 in 1931, is now just over 60,000. The problem is that 20 million tourists come each year, an average of 55,000 per day. "The number of locals has dropped by 600 since we started counting last March, and we are set to go under the psychological 60,000 barrier in May," he says.

When this happens the group will hold a mock funeral during which a coffin will be taken to the town hall. The man charged with doing something about the city's apparent demise is the Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, who was a professor of philosophy before he ran for office. He has been attacked for allowing massive advertising hoardings to be put up in St Marks' Square and, more recently, agreeing to a US$3.1m (Dh11.5m), five-year deal with Coca-Cola, for the installation of 60 vending machines in the city's piazzas. Cacciari argues that with the squeezing of goverment funding, the city needs the cash.

This season North America and Europe may have seen the best winter snow for 25 years, but it has also been one of the worst seasons for accidents. Very cold conditions have made the pistes faster and collisions on the slopes all the more serious. In Austria, there have been 29 fatalities this year leading to demands for a law to make the wearing of helmets compulsory for all children aged 14 and under. It has also opened a debate about the introduction of speed cameras on the slopes and what such regulations would mean for personal freedom.

Last week, the head of Austria's Alpine police, Lt Col Hans Ebner revealed that many skiers and snowboarders responsible for accidents hit and run. "It is around 15-20 per cent. I find it amazing," he said. Not that the problem is confined to Austria. In the Californian ski resort of Mammoth, leaving the scene of a collision is illegal and punishable by a heavy fine or up to six months in prison. Some US resorts offer rewards to those who identify hit-and-run skiers. In a famous case in Italy recently, a 16-year-old schoolboy sparked a police manhunt when he caused the death of a man who was teaching his daughter to ski near Bolzano in the Dolomites. The boy later told police that he had not stopped because he had seen others helping the victim.

News comes of some summer deals at Emirates Hotels and Resorts. From June 1 to Sept 17, there is a 15 per cent discount and "bonus" nights on offer when you book a longer stay. At Al Maha Desert resort and spa, guests who stay for two nights will receive a complimentary third night. Promotional rates start from US$882 (Dh3,239) full board including two desert-based activities. At The Harbour Hotel in Dubai, the cost of a double room starts at $255 (Dh935) per night; and at Green Lakes Serviced Apartments, also in Dubai, a double room costs from $278 (Dh1,020) per night. Guests staying for three nights will be given a complimentary fourth night.