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Tourism boom in post-war Sri Lanka
Publication Date : 16-10-2013
There were more soldiers than tourists on the streets of Colombo when Stephanie Teng was in the Sri Lankan business capital in 2008, the year before the country's long-drawn civil war ended.
The overwhelming presence of machine gun-wielding soldiers and the constant fear of another attack by Tamil Tiger rebels made a relaxing retreat impossible, recalled Teng, who was there to attend a friend's wedding.
"My local friends would tense up whenever there's a roadblock, and I would get all tensed up too seeing how anxious they were," said the clinical psychology researcher.
But her not-so-distant memory of a daunting city is a far cry from present-day Colombo, as this reporter found out during a recent sponsored trip there.
Now, its long beaches teem with laid-back sea gazers and its Odel outlet mall is filled with seasoned tourists shopping for brand-name wear at a steal. Even the grand beachfront Galadari Hotel, the site of a 1997 suicide attack that left 18 people dead and more than 100 injured, draws well-heeled travellers in droves.
Going by official figures from the Tourism Development Authority, the South Asian island nation - famous for its tempting beaches, rolling hills and succulent crabs - regained its shine soon after its 26-year brutal war ended in 2009. Tourist arrivals swelled by 46 per cent in 2010 to 654,476, and more than one million tourists set foot in Sri Lanka last year - a first for the country.
This year, the country received another shot in the arm when it was billed by Lonely Planet, the world's largest publisher of travel guidebooks, as the best destination to visit.
Following the glowing review, more than 800,000 tourists made for the lush green island in the first nine months of this year, 16 per cent more than the same period last year. The country's eight Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites, including the stunning Sigiriya rock fortress, are now rightfully travellers' hot spots.
Local conglomerates like Aitken Spence have ventured into former war zones in the scenic east and north with new resort developments, while international hotel chains such as Shangri-La, Sheraton and Movenpick have also returned with mega projects.
Hong Kong-based Shangri-La, for instance, will begin construction of its US$450 million hotel and retail cluster in Colombo at the end of this month. Australian gaming mogul James Packer is also set to invest $350 million in Sri Lanka's first foreign-funded casino and a 400-room hotel fronting a lake.
Many Sri Lankans are thankful for the turnaround.
When tourist confidence plummeted to its lowest level in 2001 after the Tamil Tigers' bombing at Bandaranaike International Airport, business plunged for six months, said Lalin Sumanasinghe, a manager with Aitken Spence Travels.
"Many of us in the office just sat by the fax machine all day and hoped for a miracle," he said.Now, Sujith Jayasekara receives so many tourists at his jewellery showroom in the hilly region of Kandy that he hardly has time for breaks.
The multilingual demonstrator, who works for Hemachandras, a brand known for its sapphire collection, has also started keeping an account with Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese microblog site, to stay in touch with his growing base of Chinese clients. Tourist arrivals from China in the first nine months of this year have jumped 75 per cent over the same period last year.
The boom had also convinced Sudanthakha Wijethunga to invest 4 million Sri Lanka rupees ($30,500) in a Toyota Prius in 2011 to work as a chauffeur guide.
"I hope the number (of tourist arrivals) keeps going up since I am still servicing the loan," he said.
But many chauffeur guides that The Straits Times spoke to in the drivers' quarter of Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, the central highlands, said they cannot be overly optimistic about the boom.
"We have peace now, but we also have bad press," said a driver, who requested anonymity.
The Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accused of failing to account for war crimes, committing human rights abuses and keeping a stranglehold on the economy, claims which it has repeatedly denied.
Some of its most high-profile critics include United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who warned of an increasingly authoritarian government after her recent fact-finding trip to the country. Another is Canadian Premier Stephen Harper, who has confirmed his boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, to be held in Colombo next month.
British tourist Sophie Davies said a friend who was "turned off" by the alleged war crimes had declined to join her for her trip.
But the fraud analyst, who was relaxing in the cooling winds of Amaya Hills in central Sri Lanka, said: "If you look into the history of most countries in the world, you will smell oppression somewhere, at some point in time.
"But I still believe in seeing the country for myself."