Sri Lanka is back on the tourist map


COLOMBO – Decades of fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government battered the tourism industry, but a year after the war ended, tourists are returning in record numbers and efforts are being made to lure visitors to the worst-hit north to rebuild the economy.

“Attractions in the north have to be identified and given publicity by travel agencies and operators,” said Udana Wickramasinghe, an official with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA). He said cities such as Jaffna, Elephant Pass and Mullaitivu had been pinpointed as potential tourist hotspots.

According to the tourism agency, the first five months of this year have seen 49 percent more tourists than last year – 233,922 tourist arrivals to May, up from 157,495 in the same period of 2009.

Tourist arrivals could top 600,000 this year and net up to US$600 million, and the agency is working on developing hotels and other facilities in the north to encourage more visitors, Wickramasinghe said.

“There will be multiple effects of tourists spending money in the north, from the buying of goods and services in the area, to employees and locals being involved in tourism activities,” Wickramasinghe said.

Tourism, the fourth-largest source of foreign cash in Sri Lanka, contributes $350 million to a $6.2-billion economy, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

Back on the tourist map

Tens of thousands died in the civil war and the hard-hit, agriculturally-driven Northern Province, home to 1.3 million people, is struggling to recuperate as livelihoods lie in tatters.

The number of tourists peaked in 2004 – at 566,202 arrivals – and then tumbled as the war in the north escalated, to 438,475 in 2008. The figure rebounded modestly last year – to 447,890 – after the government’s declaration of victory over the Tamil Tigers in May, and has jumped this year.

“People are now willing to come. I have seen positive trends in tourism in the country. This will have a long-term, positive impact on Sri Lanka’s economic stability,” said Rasangi De Silva, from the tourism authority.

The US State Department on 26 May lifted its travel advisory on Sri Lanka, citing improvements in safety and security conditions throughout the country – another boost for tourism, which would be a boon for the north.

“Income from tourism will most definitely be among the leading drivers of the northern economy,” said Naoko Ishii, World Bank country director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives. “Local producers can supply the industry, and many self-employment opportunities will arise.”