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Economy

Sri Lanka bombings hurt island's tourist destination ambitions

Death toll rises to 290 after Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels

Crime-scene officials inspect the explosion area at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo after deadly blasts April 21.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI -- About 290 people have been killed by Sunday's church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka, acts the government sees as terrorism. Thirteen people were arrested in connection with the Easter Sunday bombings, according to local media reports.

"I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tweeted.

Explosions tore through the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo and two other five-star hotels, as well as three churches celebrating Easter in Colombo, the east coast city of Batticaloa, and the west coast city of Negombo. Two more explosions occurred later, including at the Tropical Inn near the national zoo. There was still no claim of responsibility for the attacks.

Government officials said 36 of the dead were thought to be foreigners, as of April 21. Among them were nationals of Denmark, India, Turkey, Portugal, the U.K. and the U.S., according to officials in those countries, while media reports said Chinese were also among the victims.

The Japanese government confirmed on Monday that one Japanese national has been confirmed dead and four more were wounded in the attack.

Around 500 people were injured in the blasts, the first of which went off at around 8:30 a.m.

The government declared a curfew and restricted access to social media following the bombings, which marked a rare outbreak of violence against the nation's Christian minority.

Sunday's blasts were all the more shocking because the South Asian island nation had been spared such large-scale violence since the end of a decades-long civil war in 2009. It has also been free from terrorism by Islamist extremists. While gangs made up of majority Buddhists have attacked Christians before, such incidents were not terrorist in nature, according to a local journalist.

No organization had claimed responsibility for the bombings as of Sunday evening, but some Sri Lankan news outlets reported on the possibility of involvement by Islamist terror groups.

The hotels targeted were located at the heart of Colombo -- the nation's largest city -- near government offices and the central bank. Besides the Shangri-La and the Tropical Inn, the Kingsbury and the Cinnamon Grand were bombed.

Sunday's attacks threaten to deal a blow to Sri Lanka's international tourism industry, which accounted for 27% of exports and 6% of gross domestic product in 2017, World Bank statistics show. Foreign tourists spent about $5 billion that year in the nation of 21 million.

Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple Easter Sunday explosions struck the country on April 21.   © Getty Images

Sri Lanka has $52 billion in external debt. Struggling with repayment, it tapped into its foreign exchange reserves in January to repay a portion that had come due. A dent in tourism would only squeeze the country's finances further.

"We'll find that tourism will get affected in our country for some time," Wickremesinghe told reporters, describing tourism as "one of the rising sectors" of the economy.

"Similarly, there will be initially some outflow of funds" from the country, the prime minister added.

While much about the bombings remains unknown, one local media report said six of the eight explosions were caused by suicide bombers, citing surveillance footage.

In his tweet, Wickremesinghe called on the public "to remain united and strong" as well as "avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation."

Sri Lanka suffered a decades-long conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an extremist group founded in the 1970s, and the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

The Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009, with then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring an end to the civil war.

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