Tourism silver lining growth in the north

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Uditha Jayasinghe in Jaffna Tourism is one dimension driving transformation in Sri Lanka’s former war-torn northern capital Jaffna as its deep links draw many back after the end of a brutal three-decade war. For many, many years Jaffna was at the epicentre of a battle between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). Even though the conflict finally ended in 2009, it had already changed a way of life that defined the north. S. Hariharan’s story Entrepreneur S. Hariharan who runs the oldest hotel in the peninsula has seen much and surmounted more. His father Iyappan Sangaran was 14 years old when he arrived in Sri Lanka from the Indian State of Kerala in 1918 without a penny. Motivated by extreme poverty he worked for many years in the south before moving to Jaffna during World War II. By this time he had earned enough to buy himself a car and proceeds from the taxi service eventually led to the birth of Subhash Café in 1947. A few years later Subhash Cream House, an ice cream parlour, was added beside the café. Ice cream is still a popular production in Jaffna with flavours unique to the region. The café sparked a trend that defied bullets and is still mirrored enthusiastically around the town. In 1970 Sangaran succeeded in establishing Subhash Hotel, as the only tourist guest house it inevitably become a landmark in the area. “We were the only hotel for about two decades. So many people who left during the war still remember us and come to stay here when they visit,” Hariharan told the Daily FT. As the fighting worsened in the 1990s thousands of predominantly Tamil people fled not just the north but Sri Lanka. Uprooting their lives to move predominantly to Canada and Europe as well as many other countries. During this time Subhash Hotel transformed into a makeshift shelter for families. As the violence intensified everyone vacated the premises, fleeing to another town south of Jaffna. “My father had put his heart and soul into the hotel. He wanted to be very strong but on the last day he would not leave his room. I had to persuade him to come with us to save our lives,” Hariharan recounts. Sangaran, who had named his beloved hotel after famed Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandrabose, returned to his home in Kerala. The hotel was taken over by the Army as a command base and Sangaran died three years later. Tragedy does not stop time But tragedy does not stop time. In March 2011 the Sri Lankan Army returned the hotel to Hariharan’s family. Together with his brother Hariharan obtained a loan and rebuilt the hotel, expanding it in the process. They reopened it in 2012. Subhash Hotel stepped into to a transformed industry. The end of the war sparked a massive influx of tourists, mostly local, to the north. Many Sri Lankans who were born in the 1980s had never seen this part of their own country and curiosity led them by the droves. “Curiosity is still the main reason people come. This is where 30 years of war happened. People have heard about it and want to see it. Our main market is the diaspora community who left during the war and still return to holiday or see to business matters.” Foreign tourists are still few and far apart, the hotel catered to only 71 foreign tourists in 2013, seeking the novel and untrodden areas of Sri Lanka. Nonetheless occupancy rates are positive with an average of 40%-45% across the year. Biggest boom industry Elsewhere tourism is the biggest boom industry in post-war Sri Lanka reaching over 1.2 million arrivals last year and attracting earnings of $ 1.7 billion, according to the Central Bank. The tropical island is aiming to attract 2.5 million arrivals by 2016, buoyed by fast increasing numbers from China. Yet Jaffna needs more evolution to tap into this global interest significantly. In the last five years the government has pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure building impressively smooth roads and bridges to link the once remote north with the south. However, the tourism industry needs specific infrastructure, such as a training school and the opportunity to employ specific trained experts from other countries such as chefs, opined Hariharan. “Tourists need something to do. We don’t have stunning beaches such as the Eastern Province and what we do have must be developed more for tourist use. We need to train staff, because of the war we lost most of our professionals,” he said pointing out that “Jaffna has no night life.” Jaffna’s Mayor Yogeshwari Pathkunarajah agrees. “We’re looking for investment in these areas. We want to train people to work in the tourism sector. It is undoubtedly important as this is an industry that could bring rapid development to this region. We need to provide things for tourists to do so they stay for several days at least.” Youth in Jaffna, she noted, are not interested in the tourism sector, with many preferring more lucrative jobs overseas. Development “Amazing” and “marvellous” are the words she uses to describe development since the end of the war. Key points in this journey has been the resettlement of over 300, 000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) with only 8237 families remaining, rehabilitation of 12,000 former LTTE carders, infrastructure development worth 221 billion rupees (about $ 1.7 billion) and significant progress in demining vast swaths of land. “It was initially identified that over 640 villages were affected by these mines. It was estimated that there are over one million landmines in the conflict affected area of Sri Lanka, mostly in the north,” she recalled. “Over 95% of demining has been completed by the government with a total land area of 1,982 cleared as of March 2014. Only about 82 remain.” The Northern Province has recorded a regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 25.9% in 2012 contributing to 4.0% to the national economy up from 3.4% in 2010. The average GDP growth at 25.2% in the Northern Province has been much higher than the national average of 16.2% from 2010 to 2012 period, according to the Finance Ministry. Yet all these numbers boil down to one thing for Jaffna people – jobs. “People need employment. This is the most important thing we are focusing on now. We have been assured at least 1,000 jobs from our first industrial zone.” Achuchuveli Industrial Zone Achuchuveli Industrial Zone (AIZ), which is funded with part assistance from the Indian Government with technical input from United Nations Office for Project Service (UNOPS), is earmarked to be the poster child for the north’s post-war industrial development. With 25 acres being developed under the first phase, the land is divided into 22 plots and will be offered on a 30-year lease to interested investors. Early this year the Sri Lankan Government began scouting for investors, issuing an open invitation to businesses. Already about 50 companies, mostly based in India, have expressed interest. The mayor hopes it will be up and running before end 2014, providing much needed livelihoods. A resilient people The blueprint for transformation has been laid. At its centre are people like K. Yogarajah, going home after a long day’s work. The blistering heat has softened as yet another day winds down for these resilient people. “Jaffna people are amazingly strong and proud. They do not want charity. They want to stand on their own feet and move forward. They are, more than anything, survivors,” he said with a weary smile, waving away questions. At this moment for Jaffna, layered in development and politics, it is the people who will decide its future.