Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Sun, sea and suicide bombers

Although the tourism industry has invested heavily in improving standards and services after the Ceasefire Agreement was signed in 2002, the number of tourists arriving in Sri Lanka continues to be threatened because of the volatile security situation in the country.

‘The Emerald Isle’, ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and ‘A Taste of Paradise’ are just some of the ways in which Sri Lanka is advertised to holiday makers across the world. But it seems that no amount of catchy slogans and idyllic images of sun, sea and sand can deter some people from the grim reality. 2006 saw a severe escalation of violence on the island between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, causing the number of civilian and military deaths and casualties to soar to new heights. Another burning issue is the number of internally displaced people fleeing from the fighting which has now, according to some sources, reached the 500,000 mark. Not only are these people now homeless, but the continuing friction has meant that humanitarian assistance has been drastically hampered and as a result, people in areas such as Vakarai are starving to death.

These are the reports that the international community hear and read about, and so, it is no wonder that tourist arrivals in September 2006 had dropped by almost 15% compared to the same time last year. What may have triggered this sharp drop is the fact that the conflict is no longer confined to the North East of the country. Bomb attacks in popular holiday resorts such as Galle and Hikkaduwa have meant that it is now not so easy to soak up the sun in blissful ignorance. As a result of these incidents, Governments of countries like Australia have issued warnings for their nationals, advising them to practice extreme caution because of the possibility of suicide attacks in Colombo, as well as elsewhere in the country. The Sri Lankan Government hit back at this, claiming it to be unnecessarily damaging to tourism. However, it seems both fair and necessary that while the situation remains this unpredictable, that Governments make their nationals aware of the risks.

Understandably, the tourist industry is worried. However many hoteliers, tour operators and restaurant owners remain hopeful that this is just a temporary setback, and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Tourism’s mission statement reads “To become the foremost tourist destination in Asia.” After over two decades of conflict, one has to admire their optimism. Sri Lanka attracts around 600,000 tourists per year which is considerably lower than its Asian neighbours such as Thailand and Malaysia, but also far lower than countries also experiencing political unrest, such as Cuba. In an attempt to turn these figures around and boost tourist arrivals, the Sri Lankan Government has supported a number of initiatives including a recent campaign carried out by the official Sri Lankan Tourist Board. For this the island played host to three international supermodels who braced the catwalk clad in saris in a special fashion show event, in a bid to gain publicity and promote the island as a desirable holiday destination.

Despite these efforts, and despite the pristine beaches, stunning hill country, ample wild life, heritage sites and the exotic cuisine that Sri Lanka has to offer, fear and uncertainty prevail and many tourists are simply not willing to take the risk. It is sadly ironic that Sri Lanka’s diversity has everything a tourist could wish for, if only the different communities that make up this diversity could put their differences aside and find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

By Nia Charpentier

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