Sri Lanka, at peace, woos tourists

Wednesday, 8 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Jacob Comenetz

The view from the top of the fifth-century Sigiriya Rock fortress, reached via a 1,200-step climb in the midst of the Sri Lankan jungle, is one Matt Schmidt will not soon forget.

“Literally like an oil painting,” is how Schmidt, Manager of a Washington-area IT consulting firm, described the breathtaking beauty of the vista.

Schmidt visited the island nation with his wife Marsha and 23 other travellers on the inaugural ‘Ambassador’s Signature Tour’ led by Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States Jaliya Wickramasuriya during the month of August. The tour was part of the Sri Lankan Government’s broader efforts to introduce Americans to their country and help realise its full potential as a tourist destination.

That potential long lay dormant due to the civil war between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had fought since 1982 to establish a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority in the northern part of the island. Since the Sri Lankan Army’s decisive defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, a new era has begun for the country of 20 million people.

As if to toast this new beginning, the New York Times in January named Sri Lanka its number one place to visit in 2010. National Geographic paid the island’s tourism industry a similar favour, ranking it the number two best island in the world to visit this year (Manhattan ranked number five).

The first six months of 2010 saw the volume of foreigners visiting Sri Lanka double over the same period in 2009. In May, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning for the island, citing improved safety and stability.

Given these and other positive indicators of economic growth and development, Ambassador Wickramasuriya is sanguine about Sri Lanka’s prospects in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of good things to talk about, and we Sri Lankans are very proud and excited about our future,” the Ambassador told an audience of journalists and members of the International Club of DC at a Nov. 12 gathering at his residence that also reunited the 25 tour participants. “We believe we are just scratching the surface of our tourism market and we look forward to continued growth,” he said.

The market indeed has much room to grow. As the Pouch reported last March, Sri Lanka’s tourist volume, at half a million visits annually, is similar to what it was at the start of the war, in 1983. Meanwhile, Thailand’s quintupled during this period, to 2.6 million.

But Wickramasuriya’s optimistic outlook is not without justification. The newly minted ‘Travel Ambassadors’ who had been on the actual Ambassador’s trip spoke in glowing terms about their experiences on the teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India.

From roadside encounters with elephants, to endless pristine beaches, to its eight UNESCO world cultural heritage sites, the island packs a huge amount of tourism potential into its West Virginia-size territory. Add to this the comparatively low prices (rooms at top hotels can be had for around $100 per night) and the legendary friendliness and hospitality of its people, and one begins to understand the draw of post-war Sri Lanka.

Of course, the country is not without problems. The denouement of the quarter-century war was particularly bloody; thousands of civilians, many of them women and children, were killed during its final days, according to United Nations reports.

Both sides committed atrocities, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group, all of which have called for independent international inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes.

The three leading human rights organisations in an October letter also declined an invitation from the Sri Lankan government to appear before its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). That commission “fails to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries,” the NGOs wrote, adding, “It is proceeding against a backdrop of government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses.”

Asked whether tourists would encounter signs of the recently ended conflict, Wickramasuriya insisted they would not. “I haven’t seen Sri Lanka this normal in all of my life,” he insisted. Even travelling to Jaffna, the northern city that’s home to many Sri Lankan Tamils, Wickramasuriya said Tamils, Singhalese and Muslim people were living harmoniously.

“I invite anyone to go to Sri Lanka without any fear now because there is peace,” the Ambassador said.

The invitation is not just theoretical. The Sri Lankan Embassy is already planning a second signature tour for next May, taking into account the feedback received from the first (a more leisurely pace will be set). Wickramasuriya said that anyone interested should e-mail the embassy to get more information.

Conditions permitting, the Ambassador will once again serve as a tour guide. “It’s going to be a very, very personal trip,” he promised.

(Source: Diplomatic Pouch)