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Improved security, infra-structure can make tourism bounce back

Everyone is aware that the tourist industry has had a tough time in recent years. The drop in tourism is a serious setback to an industry that was poised to grow in the 1980s. The first setback came with the ethnic violence of 1983. The July 1983 ethnic riots sent the rising tourist industry into a slump. There have been recoveries and set backs since then, most of which have been related to the fluctuations in security conditions. The best years have seen around a half million tourists. This is hardly a figure to boast about in comparison with other destinations that attract considerably more tourists. Eruptions of security threats hurt the industry at regular intervals.

The LTTE was aware that this was one of the ways by which it could weaken the economy, and hence the government’s war effort was to prevent strikes by the LTTE at tourist targets and large conspicuous economic targets. The bombing of the Central Bank, hotels, the airport and tourist sites was a set back to the industry. These bombings were among the targets of the LTTE that had a serious setback to tourism. Apart from these targets the general state of insecurity was a serious disincentive for tourists to visit the country. Travel advisories asking citizens of their country not to travel to Sri Lanka became a common feature.

Many of these advisories may seem quite unjustified at times, as was the case last year when Australians were advised not to travel to Sri Lanka in December last year. An Australian Sri Lankan conference to be held in Kandy had several Australian academics cancel their participation, as such advisories meant that they were denied funding from their universities. Some of the participants themselves realised that these advisories were not quite justified and braved it to come here on their own funds to participate. However, many tourists would have conformed to the advisories.

As Renton de Alwis a former Chairman of the Tourist Board has said in his book, Random Thoughts, “Tourism has been recognised as a key sector that every political grouping wants to develop in the future, for there is strong potential for earning the much-needed foreign exchange and generating productive employment opportunities. But what they all forget, is that the key ingredient for all of that to be achieved is stability in the operating environment.”


There has been a trickle of tourists coming despite the perceived security risks. Some of those classified as tourists were business travellers, government officials, officials from international agencies, persons coming to visit their relations. These persons do not in fact fall into the category of tourists as we understand it. If this number is not counted, then the figures would be much worse. The decline in tourism would be seen as it ought to be--a steep drop in numbers.

On top of the security risks, the global recession has now affected tourism. This may well have a dire effect for some time. The fall in asset values and incomes in developed countries is leading to a curtailment of holiday travel. This is a global phenomenon and nearly all tourist destinations, including big cities in Europe, are feeling the pinch rather badly. It is a part of the global melt down that cannot be resolved- even with attractive tourist packages that are being offered by various countries. There is no prospect that there would be a turn around this year. There is a hope and expectation that conditions would get better sometime in 2010. This is a hope and expectation rather than a firm prediction. There is however no doubt that there would be a return to global prosperity. What we must hope for is that when global conditions turn favourable, conditions in the country too would be favourable to attract tourists in large numbers. Meanwhile it is important to not let the flagging industry deteriorate. Tourist infrastructure must be maintained and improved.


Tourist arrivals last year were less than 500,000 at 436,475 tourists. It was much below what the country had reached several years ago. In 2004, 566,202 tourists visited the country. Even in 2007 the figure was higher at 494,008.Tourist earnings too have declined in recent years. In 2008 the country earned only Rs.342 million, less than in 2007 when we earned Rs. 385 million.

The recent experience of the tourist industry has been one of revival followed by setbacks, and then mild revivals to end in another set back. In 2000 the number of tourist arrivals reached a little over 400,000. Then it dipped in the succeeding year to about 337,000, and increased somewhat to around 393,000 in 2002. The up-trend continued into the next two years. In 2003 it rose to 500,542. The highest ever tourist arrivals were reached in 2004, when it increased by a further 13 per cent to reach over 566,202. The increases in tourist arrivals were no doubt due to the improved security situation that year after the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

In 2004 the year after the Tsunami tourist performance was somewhat out of the ordinary, as the numbers were around the same as in 2003, but the earnings from tourism declined by about 20 per cent. The number of tourists was deceptive as a fair proportion of them were not typical tourists. Therefore although the official number of tourist arrivals dipped very little, tourist earnings were around US$ 300 million compared to US$ 413 million in 2003. In fact even these may be an exaggeration, as many receipts classified as tourist earnings may well be those related to Tsunami related work. Many of those who came as tourists came in connection with Tsunami work. That is the reason why tourist earning dipped despite the larger number of arrivals. Tourist hotels had large number of rooms unoccupied as a result.

There are expectations that now that the war may be ended shortly, there would be a spurt in tourism. This is not unlikely, if with end of the war the security situation improves. However there are some concerns that after the capture of the entire country, the terrorists would resort to terror attacks sporadically. This is a threat to tourism. Therefore it is vital to wipe out terrorism for the tourist industry to thrive.


The reasons for the inability of tourism to gain momentum lie not within the industry itself. The primary cause for the last two decades has been the security situation. No one wants to come to a tourist destination where lives are in danger. Other countries have suffered the same fate, notably Egypt and Indonesia and most recently Thailand. Some government measures may alleviate the financial situation of the industry and improve tourist arrivals. Yet as long as there is an overhang of terrorism and danger to life, the capacity to develop tourism is limited. Nevertheless to view the potential for tourism purely from the perspective of the security situation is inadequate. The reasons why the tourist industry has not taken off to the promised potential lie elsewhere as well. While we have seminars here and abroad, travel to other countries, host receptions and offer incentives to travel agents we have not got the small things that matter right. The roads leading to many hotel destinations resemble jungle paths; the garbage all over the roads is disgusting even to Sri Lankans. What would be the reaction of those who come from countries where the streets are neat and tidy? Driving on the roads appears hazardous. There are dangers of fevers and other communicable diseases. Toilets in some tourist destinations are disgusting. All these deficiencies add up to making tourism not as attractive as people tend to make it out to be. When will we correct these for the good of those who live in the island as well those who visit us? It is only then that we will be able to exploit the full potential of our natural and historic sites to attract visitors.

An improvement in the security situation, the revival of the global economy and the improvements in infrastructure could enable the tourist industry to contribute handsomely to our foreign exchange earnings.