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SRI LANKA: As Fighting Stops, Sri Lanka Hopes to Woo Back Tourists – IPS ipsnews.net

[MISC, Thursday, 6 August 2009 12:17 No Comment]

Hope has once again returned to Sri Lanka’s resplendent beaches. Everyone, including hoteliers, boat operators, and beach boys, are hopeful that the end of a three decade old civil war will herald better fortunes.

For years, tourism in Sri Lanka was held hostage to war. Related businesses slumped as ethnic strife flared up in the early 1980s, driving away tourists who frequented the island.

Between 2004 and 2006, the industry got a brief reprieve with the truce between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Half a million tourists arrived in Sri Lanka every year for three consecutive years. The following years, however, saw the number of tourists nose dive with the war flaring up again by the end of 2006.

But as the Sri Lankan government defeated the LTTE, killing Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran on May 19, hoteliers and others associated with the tourism industry and gearing up for bumper arrivals from this November.

"Things have been really bad since late 2006," Anura Abeyadeera, a boat operator in Hikkaduwa, a famous tourist beach in southern Sri Lanka, told IPS. "Very few tourists have come [in recent years], and it is difficult to keep a small businesses going. Locals come, but over weekends and we cannot charge them heavily to show the coral reefs."

Abeyadeera says the current slump began in August 2006. In July of that year, government forces restarted offensive operations against the Tigers when the latter closed a sluice gate in eastern Sri Lanka. Earnings by tourism peaked at over $400 million in 2006, but tourist arrivals steadily fell by double digit margins in 2007 and 2008. In the first six months of 2009 arrivals fell by 18 percent, but in June, less than a month after the end of the war, arrivals rose by 8 per cent compared to June 2008.

"There was a lot of bad press on Sri Lanka when the fighting was taking place. No one is going to come when the news is about bombs, check points and military operations," said K Leelarathne, who ekes out a living by selling traditional wood carvings to tourists on the Hikkaduwa beach. "No one was buying carvings. Some of the tourists who were here were buying food from the local market to save money. All those who came were [budget travelers]."

Leelarathne said that attacks targeting civilians, like bombings in commuter buses and tourist destinations, drove away tourists who were otherwise mesmerised by the island’s beauty.

Leelarathne had to shut shop and stay at home since the beginning of 2009.

"It was not worth keeping it open," he said. Now, as he expects business to pick up, he is renovating the shop. "Everyone hopes that more people will come this winter," he told IPS. "At least, now there is hope."

Over 120,000 people are employed in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, according to government statistics. At least 40,000 of them are small-scale operators like Leelarathne who are employed in Sri Lanka’s informal sector.

The Sri Lankan government launched ‘Sri Lanka a small miracle’, a new multi-million dollar campaign to attract more visitors in July. George Michael, the Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, says the government plans to pump in over a billion dollars on promoting Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.

"We will [make sure] that arrivals go up by the winter season," he said.

Some, however, are skeptical if the end of war will bring back tourists. There is fear that the global financial crisis could be a real dampener.

"The financial crisis has come at a really bad time for us. We are waiting here for a massive liftoff, but there is a money crunch. It could be prove decisive," a manger at one of colombo’s leading five stars told IPS. "We have received a lot of inquiries, but inquiries don’t bring profits till the guests arrive." He cautioned that the tourism industry needs to plan ahead, and look at consolidating new arrivals and new markets.

"The advantage we have is that now we can market the entire country, including the [war ravaged] north and east west," he said. "In effect, we have a new destination to market, it is not only the traditional sun, sand and surf."

Others like Leelarathne and Abeyadeera fear that the bad press Sri Lanka has received by the foreign media could keep tourists away for a while.

"We saw a lot European countries taking a critical stance on Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war. If we don’t court this market, we will not get the big spenders," Leelarathne said.

European tourists dipped by 38 per cent last year. Many in Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourist industry hope to woo them back.

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