MIRISSA, Sri Lanka — War-weary Asian countries are planning new treats for travellers in a bid to cash in on a “peace dividend”.
Governments are scrambling to replace images of conflict with offers of dream holidays, from whale-watching in Sri Lanka to leisurely treks in Nepal, meditation in Bali and golf in Cambodia.
Sri Lanka’s golden beaches, along with tea plantations and ancient religious sites, had long attracted visitors — but numbers dropped as decades of war tormented the teardrop-shaped tropical island.
When government forces claimed victory against Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in May, tourism chiefs set to work, launching a campaign entitled “Sri Lanka: Small Miracle”, to polish its post-war image.
One of the new activities designed to sell the country as a diverse destination is whale watching, focused on the giant mammals frequenting the island’s shores between December and April.
British marine biologist Charles Anderson says the numbers of blue and sperm whales and their proximity to shore make the island a natural lure for the growing numbers of eco-tourists.
“Sri Lanka has enormous potential to be a whale destination,” said the Maldives-based Anderson, who has been studying Indian Ocean whales for 25 years.
Dileep Mudadeniya, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau’s managing director, estimates the promotional campaign will help raise tourist arrivals by at least 20 percent to 500,000 visitors in 2010.
“We have an image that has been challenged by war and travel advisories. Now the war is over. There is lot of interest in us and we will see an upswing by November,” Mudadeniya told AFP.
Another country recently freed from the grip of conflict, Nepal, is also hoping that peace will bring back the tourists and is looking to tempt them with a new “Himalayan Trail” running the length of the country.
The number of tourists travelling to Nepal slumped during a 10-year civil war between the army and Maoist rebels which ended in 2006.
But last year a record 550,000 people visited the Himalayan state after foreign governments relaxed their travel warnings.
Tourism authorities say they hope to attract a million visitors by 2011 and are focusing on some of the less developed areas of the country, where few foreigners have ventured.
“We are banking on the peace dividend,” said Aditya Baral, director of the Nepal Tourism Board.
“There are lots of unexplored areas in western and eastern Nepal and this time we are trying our best to encourage people to visit those areas where very few people have travelled.”
One plan — still in its early stages — involves creating a “Himalayan Trail”, taking trekkers to some of the remotest parts of the country.
The trail would link paths already used by local people to transport goods and livestock, and would take three months to complete — with most visitors expected to walk it in stages.
Even intermittent violence can ruin a country’s tourist trade, as the Indonesian resort island of Bali learnt to its cost after Islamic militant bomb attacks in 2002 and 2005 killed a total of some 220 people.
The first Bali bombings cut foreign tourist arrivals to the island by 70 percent — and they took years to return.
Bali Tourism Board secretary general Anak Agung Suryawan Wiranatha said the island had marketed itself as a haven of peace to counter the negative consequences of the bombings.
“Now we promote Bali as a peaceful and spiritual destination. We promote yoga and meditation on the island,” Wiranatha said.
“Now health tourism and spas are booming. They are the favorites of tourists from Japan and Korea.”
But it is not easy to rebuild tourism in a country that has seen sustained violence, like Cambodia, where up to two million people died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
Decades of civil strife ended in 1998, and tourism is now one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the impoverished southeast Asian nation.
Even though Cambodia now lures more than two million foreign visitors a year, most stay only briefly to see the ancient World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat temple complex.
“We need time to (change our image),” Ho Vandy, co-chair of Cambodia’s tourism working group told AFP.
The government last year launched an international “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign promoting the country’s beaches, eco-tourism and culture.
More than 20 islands have been designated for development, Vandy said, while a new airport in seaside Sihanoukville is expected to open later this year.
Other plans include a game park for well-heeled hunters in the remote jungle-covered northern Ratanakiri province and several luxury golf courses around the country.
Nothing illustrates the cost of violence and the value of peace in the Asian region quite as clearly as the contrasting situations in Pakistan’s Swat valley and Indian Kashmir.
Tourists are returning to Kashmir, once described by a 17th-century visiting emperor as a “paradise on earth”, as militant violence in the Muslim-majority region subsides to its lowest level since 1989.
In 1988 more than 700,000 tourists visited Kashmir, but the number declined sharply as the insurgency intensified. Now the tide appears to be turning again, with more than 380,000 visiting in the first seven months of 2009.
Not far away, Pakistan’s Swat valley was the jewel of the country’s tourism crown and known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” — until Taliban militants this year pushed into towns and villages in a bid to enforce sharia law.
It is not just Swat that has been hit by insurgents — more than 2,000 people have been killed in Taliban-linked attacks across Pakistan in the last two years, scaring away all but the most intrepid foreign tourists.
Pakistan earned 16 billion rupees (200 million dollars) from 800,000 visitors in 2007. Fewer than 400,000 visitors came in 2008, bringing in just eight billion rupees, and the numbers are expected to be even lower this year.
“Terrorism has really affected us a great deal,” Tourism Minister Ataur Rehman told AFP.
“We have started our endeavours to attract tourists from the world over as the situation in Swat and other areas is stable now and will enable us to again make them attractive tourist zones,” he said.
But the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009 put Pakistan at 113 out of 130 countries, and officials say there is a long way to go until Swat is returned to its former glory.
Until then, tourists are likely to turn to the countries that have already put their conflicts behind them, to sample the new temptations on offer.