Blowing a hole in Paradise

The beaches are deserted, the resorts rent for a song; there's nothing like a good war to bring in the holiday bargains, as Sri Lanka is sadly learning

By Ron Gluckman / Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

THERE ARE NO MORE QUEUES FOR TRAIN to Kandy. Beaches are deserted. And tourists can bed down in an antique-strewn 1,500-square-feet room overlooking the choicest stretch of seaside in Colombo at the Galle Face Hotel, a 132-year-old Raffles-like landmark for the "black-out" rate of only US$30.

Bargains, in fact, abound on everything from rental cars to restaurant meals all around the former island of Ceylon. But the discounts haven’t helped to attract too many people to this paradise-under-siege with its daily power outages.

Sri Lanka’s shell-shocked tourist industry has been devastated by the ongoing civil war, with the greatest damage coming after last October, when the rebel Tamil Tigers made a dramatic switch in strategy in the group’s 13-year-old battle with government forces. In a series of strikes at targets in the capital, the Tamil Tigers transported the war from the northern hinterland into the heart of the country - to the capital of Colombo.

Cancellations started slowly at the outset of the island’s fall tourist season, but by the end of last year, many European nations had issued strict travel advisories against visiting Sri Lanka. Insurers stopped issuing travel policies for visitors. "The Swedes cancelled everything," moaned a hotel owner in the tiny southern beach resort of Unawatuna. "Overnight, we went from full up to bankrupt."

But the biggest blow to Sri Lanka’s embattled tourist industry came earlier this week, at the launch of the country’s first major international tourist promotion campaign. More than 70 travel writers and industry specialists had been invited for the free tour of Sri Lanka, but a pair of bomb blasts at a suburban railway station only days before departure prompted many to give the trip a miss. Even those attending are now faced with filing reports that should only heighten the perception of Sri Lanka as another Asian danger zone to be avoided.

Surprisingly, Sri Lanka officials decided to go ahead with the press trip, which was planned to kick off the country’s first major international tourism campaign. HMS Samaranayake, chairman of the Ceylon Tourist Board, said US$4-5 million was committed to the two-year campaign which officially launches next week.

"You know, basically we have an image problem," he said. "People think that its unsafe here for tourists, and that’s completely a false impression. All you have to do is take a tour of this lovely island. There may be a confrontation in the north and the east, but around the rest of the island, life goes on as usual."

Until last week, that is. From Samaranayake’s window, the view is seductively serene: palm trees swaying among the tan sands of the capital city beach. Across the street, construction continues on the expansion of the Oberoi Hotel, a US$20 million hotel-office-shopping project that represents the first major tourist investment in the country in years. But only a few kilometres down Galle Face Road, the army was still sweeping up the debris from bombs that shredded several train cars and killed more than six dozen people.

The railway blasts reiterated the long-feared change in terrorist tactics. Until late last year, the Tamil Tigers had largely targeted military and government targets. But the victims this time we ordinary citizens, and the destruction was wanton. "That’s pretty much it," says one Colombo tourist agent. "We’ve been trying to build back from the cancellations of last year, looking forward to Christmas, convincing consumers that it was safe to come to Sri Lanka. But if the Tigers blow up trains, buildings, hotels, you can kiss this country goodbye as a tourist destination for a long time, maybe a decade."

Indeed, the outlook seems bleak across the island, whatever effort officials take to boost tourism. Most foreign tourist companies long ago fled the troubled island. Those that have stayed have struggled to rebuild business from scratch, substituting high-end German and Italian group tours for bargain packages geared towards British heritage aficionados and Asian adventure seekers.

"Last year, even with the troubles in the north, we were still booking 400-500 people per month until the bombs started exploding in Colombo," said Yves Bajart, chief representative of Belgium's Jet Holidays in the capital. "Now, we do 40 or 50, and that’s a battle, even with cuts in prices. It’s very difficult."

The impact can be seen in every part of the island, which had been experiencing tourist growth of 20 percent per year, even during the war. From the outbreak of the ethnic conflict, which pits the minority Hindu Tamils in the north against the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the impact was largely limited to the zone of conflict, in the northernmost Jaffna Peninsula and the eastern coast. The major tourist areas, the beach zone from Colombo to Tangalla in the south, and the high country of temples and tea plantations, were largely unaffected. That changed as the terrorist campaign spread the notion that anyone or anything is at risk.  

The government response has largely been measured, opting for higher security without risking hysteria. Searches of bags in government buildings and larger hotels became commonplace last year, and roadblocks spread to the countryside. Even the horrendous barbed wire and battle-zone airport security that provided tourists with a shocking introduction to Sri Lanka disappeared in June, replaced by a large, thick bomb-resistant wall that surrounds the airport.

Aside from these inconveniences, for the large part, tourists were left untouched and unhampered.

"The turning point came last October," said V. Nandakumar Nair, director of John Keells Stock Brokers, and an analyst of the tourist trade. "Tourism is down at least 34 percent in the first three months of this year, and we expect it to get much worse. The tourist sector is really down in the dumps."

Government figures don’t show as deep a decline. In fact, tourist arrivals held almost steady at 403,400 visitors in 1995, as compared to 407,500 in 1994. However, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Most of the visitors were traders and businessmen from nearby India, and their short stays and small spending could not offset the loses of the high-end business from Europe.

Which explains the urgency of the government’s tourist-promotion campaign. "We don’t mind tourism from lower income countries," Samaranayake said. "We are looking at new markets, like India, Russia and South Africa."

He points to new projects as optimistic indicators. "There are 2,500 hotel rooms under construction, even with all these troubles," he said. "Also airlines that pulled out earlier, like British Air, are coming back. There are many positive signals."

Certainly, Sri Lanka has much to offer tourists. In fact, the country may be the most perfectly-designed place on Earth. Ringed completely around by stunning beaches, Sri Lanka has grassland, hills and spectacular parks filled with parrots, monkeys and elephants. Grand colonial hotels dot the coastal cities, while sprawling tea plantations provide stunning reminders of the British period. Ancient cities await explorers, while mountaintop temples offer alluring cultural discovery. The country is like a mini-continent of wonders.

But terrorism adds one attraction too many, and it spoils the rest of the package.

"When things return to normal, then we can sell this country," Samaranayake said. "Until then, all we can do is work on improving our image."  

Ron Gluckman is Hong Kong-based reporter who roams around Asia for a variety of publications including Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Discovery, Manager and the South China Morning Post, which ran this story in the summer of 1996. For a look at some of his Ron's other reports from the island, see Solar Dreams, Life Under Siege and Arthur C. Clarke.

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