Where now for Sri Lanka?

Mirissa from above

With the end of its 25-year-long civil war, Sri Lanka was enjoying an unprecedented period of growth. Despite ongoing friction between past and present presidents, peace reigned. Lavish new resorts were springing up along its sand-sprinkled shoreline. Tourists were coming in droves. But on 21 April 2019, the honeymoon was over.

Sri Lanka reeled in horror as nine Islamist bombers detonated bombs inside busy tourist hotels and at Christian churches during Easter Sunday services. More than 200 locals and tourists were killed in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo, and hundreds more were injured in one of the worst global terrorist attacks since 9/11.

On 20 April, Sri Lanka was riding high as Lonely Planet’s top destination for travel in 2019. On 21 April, headlines about Sri Lanka were filled with horror and bloodshed. Journalists immediately probed links to Sri Lanka’s long history of internal conflict, but over the following days, a sadly familiar pattern of radicalisation, overseas influence and ignored warning signs emerged.

Colombo skyline, Sri Lanka
Colombo skyline © Sergei Gussev / CC by 2.0

The massacre on 21 April turned out to be just the latest attack in a global campaign of extremist violence, as hard to predict or avoid as the attacks on London, Paris or Mumbai.

For most tourists, the immediate concern was security. As police staged raids across the country, the government imposed a state of emergency and a social media ban, to prevent the stirring of communal tensions. An overnight curfew was imposed, and tourists were required to present passports and plane tickets to travel by road to Colombo’s airport after dark.

The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth office and other foreign governments posted warnings on their websites, but initially fell short of declaring a ban on travel, leaving tourists in limbo – unable to claim on insurance for cancelling or curtailing trips – while stories of further terrorist cells and police clashes with militants emerged.

However, as the story developed, one by one, foreign governments upgraded their warnings to ‘avoid all but essential travel’ and flights filled with tourists leaving the island. Locals looked on bewildered, staring at the shattered dream of tourist growth, and wondering ‘why us?’, and ‘why now?’.

Carved Buddha at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Stone-carved Buddha at Polonnaruwa © Bianca / CC by-ND 2.0

The future of Sri Lanka’s tourism revival now hangs in the balance. When the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka was visited by just 448,000 visitors a year, but by 2018, this had swelled to 2.3 million. Already, travel agencies are warning of massive cancellations for 2019, and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has predicted that visitor numbers could drop by 500,000 in 2019.

To reassure visitors, armed air marshals will be placed on Sri Lankan Airlines flights. However, with tourists scared off not just by the events of 21 April, but by revelations of warnings from foreign intelligence agencies that were ignored by the authorities, this may be too little, too late.

But is avoiding Sri Lanka a valid response to a real and present danger, or an overreaction triggered by blanket media coverage of a one-off terrorist attack?

Things seem to happen in a very predictable way after terrorist incidents. At first, bookings collapse, but tourism, while skittish, has a very short memory. Within a few years, most destinations recover from terrorist violence, at least in terms of visitor numbers. But that time can represent thousands of livelihoods lost.

Sunset over beach at Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
Sunset over sand at Batticaloa © Indi Samarajiva / CC by 2.0

The lesson of past attacks is that the pace of recovery depends on the reputation of the country in question. The tourist industry in Paris, for example, saw only a short dip after the Bataclan attacks in 2015. But Sri Lanka has the added baggage of its civil war and political instability to add to the mix.

In practical terms, Sri Lanka is probably more secure now than it has been for years, by virtue of the heavy police presence on the streets. The government is certainly taking no chances at the present time, and the island’s beaches, temples and tea plantations are fully open to visitors. But government failures in the run up to the attacks have done as much to harm Sri Lanka’s reputation as the actual events of 21 April.

The future of tourism to Sri Lanka will depend on how quickly and calmly the Sri Lankan government can wrap up its investigations and apprehend associates of the Easter Sunday bombers, and how quickly foreign governments are willing to relax their travel advisories.

Stuck in the middle, the thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans who depend on tourism for a livelihood have no choice but to sit and wait.

If you are thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka, check the latest travel advice from your government, and review local media for the latest developments in the country – infolanka.com/news is a useful resource for news stories from various Sri Lankan publications.

For an update, see the article Sri Lanka: a Time of Danger.

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