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Tea Leaves

Sri Lanka recovers its tourism mojo

Touted as a top global destination for 2019, challenges remain

Foreign tourists explore an old Dutch built Fort along the Southern coastal belt in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

A decade ago, it would have been almost inconceivable that Lonely Planet, the world's best-selling guide book, would choose the country as its top global tourism destination. With its violent politics and bloody insurgency, Sri Lanka was then very much a lonely country, with most of the northern and eastern regions inaccessible due to fighting.

But Lonely Planet has now bestowed this honor on Sri Lanka for 2019 -- and local tour operators are ecstatic. They remember rounds of booking cancellations whenever bombs went off on this scenic island, and many years of negative press about human rights violations and security fears.

All that began to change after the civil war ended in 2009. But in late 2018, their hopes for a tourism boom faltered when President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, provoking a constitutional crisis that threatened to renew civil strife. Political calm has now apparently returned, with the restoration of the prime minister and a semblance of stability.

Nonetheless, the Indian Ocean island has become a pawn in the great-power politics playing out between the U.S., China and India. In terms of tourism, the rise of China is already having an impact. Many Sri Lankans look to the West as a traditional source of tourists, but they are being supplanted by a growing tide of Chinese visitors. The heightened visitor  influx threatens to undermine Sri Lanka's poster image as a relatively unspoiled destination -- although it is not just due to growing Chinese interest.

The popular Yala and Uda Walawe game reserves for example drew many more Western visitors than Chinese in the recent year-end holiday season, according to Ajantha Palihawadana, senior naturalist at the Rascals Kite Resort at Kalpitiya.

Superpower competition is affecting the tourism industry in other ways. While rogue elephant attacks have increased due to human encroachment in jungle areas, attention is also being paid to another pachyderm, in this case the symbol of Wickremesinghe's United National Party.

The prime minister wants to change the course of transportation infrastructure plans launched as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative under his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa. These projects include the Chinese-financed $1.3 billion Hambantota port project and a $210 million airport in Rajapaksa's home constituency.

Wickremesinghe has called these projects "white elephants" and has promised to turn them into "green" ones by incorporating them, at least partially, into commercial tourism infrastructure plans, to generate revenue to help pay off the debts owed to China.

It was to some extent the modification of such projects that helped provoke the recent political crisis. Rajapaksa, who favored the Chinese over Sri Lanka's traditional Western and Indian partners, collaborated with Sirisena to dismiss Wickremesinghe in October under questionable circumstances and appoint him as the new prime minister. It was only the resistance of the courts and parliament that eventually allowed Wickremesinghe to regain power.

Despite the recent political disputes, Sri Lanka has plenty to offer tourists. The surfing has earned international accolades, particularly now that visitors can go to previously inaccessible locations such as Arugam Bay in the country's east. Although Chinese and Indian tourists are generally not interested in the surfing, they enjoy ecotourism and the delights of the local cuisine.

So-called war tourism is attracting visitors to the northern region, once the scene of heavy fighting. After arriving in the bucolic palm-fringed landscape of Jaffna and being picked up in classic Austin Cambridge cars that serve as taxis, tourists are taken past bullet-marked houses in ghost towns and discarded military equipment including battle tanks. To the south, the island's scenic beaches are another popular attraction.

But if Sri Lankans want to take advantage of the increased tourist interest, they are increasingly realizing they must step up their game. They generally do not cater to visitors as well as do the Thais, for example. Sri Lanka has never done much to entice foreign tourists, who largely discovered the island's wonders on their own. When tourists began streaming in a decade ago, locals became used to easy money. That attitude is set to change, as local tourism operators acknowledge.

A man named Kasun, whose father was also in the tourism sector, notes that massive hotels owned by prominent people with political connections are coming up in his formerly sleepy locale. Kasun and his sister run a small inn in the scenic bay area of Unawatuna on the southern coast. Like other local hotel operators, they can only hope that politics -- both domestic and international -- do not get in the way of Sri Lanka's steady rise on the global tourism ladder.

Rajpal Abeynayake is a Colombo-based writer.

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