Skirt store

Lonely Planet’s first destination takes a hit after explosions

| Bharat Mallawarachi |

HIKKADUWA, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sipping fresh coconut water while sunbathing on the deserted beach of Hikkaduwa, Alexi Konchayenko, a Ukrainian sports trainer, took a stoic note.

Bomb explosions can happen “anywhere, anytime”, he said, adding that he was not afraid. “Sri Lanka is an amazing country. This is my first visit and I will also tell my friends to come.

It’s a lonely voice – and a lonely presence. Sri Lanka was the Lonely Planet Guide top travel destination for 2019, but since the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels, foreign tourists have fled.

Many of those who were to come in the next few months have canceled. Hotel occupancy across the island has dropped from 85% to 90%. Tropical beaches, restaurants and shops are empty.

The coordinated suicide bombings of April 21 not only destroyed lives, but also wiped out the livelihoods of Sri Lankans who depend on tourism.

More than 250 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), died in the explosions claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. ).

The Dutch fort built in the 17th century, which was a popular tourist site, stands empty in Galle, Sri Lanka. – PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE AND BELOW: A Sri Lankan reef safari boat operator gazes at an empty beach and hotel staff stroll through an empty restaurant at a tourist hotel in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

Tourists normally come to Hikkaduwa in the southwest for the strong waves that are perfect for surfing and the sparkling clear waters made for snorkelling. Today, of the 27 hotels, very few are open. Most, as well as the restaurants that line the six kilometers of palm-lined beach, are closed.

Among the few hotels still open is the Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel. On April 21, all 50 rooms were occupied; today, only a handful. “It’s a real disaster. We don’t know what to do right now,” said Sanjeewani Yogarajah, an executive at the hotel. She said the attack cost the hotel 5.5 million Sri Lankan rupees, forcing hotel management to send half the staff home.

Some tourism officials say the damage to the industry after the bombings is worse than during the 26-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government that ended there. ten years. At least then, the violence was mostly contained in northern Sri Lanka, they said. This time, no part of the island remained unscathed by the explosions.

The general manager of the hotel chain Hikka Tranz Lankesha Ponnamperuma is one of the lucky ones. While most hotels report mass cancellations, it survives on business from local residents. Last Friday, two-thirds of the 150 rooms were booked, mainly by domestic tourists.

“I haven’t fired anyone yet. Instead, we train our employees to adjust their spending and help them restructure their bank loans,” Ponnamperuma said.

Sri Lanka Hotel Association chairman Sanath Ukwatta said hotels had offered 30-50% discounts to attract local residents.

Such a strategy won’t solve the problem, he said, but “will at least help to make hotels work”.

The manager of a clothing store said the owner had closed the group’s other two stores as well as the factory. “Business collapsed after April 21,” said Kumari, who declined to give her last name.

According to government figures, there has been an 80% drop in arrivals since the attack. Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Last year, 2.3 million tourists visited the island, generating $4.4 billion in revenue, an increase of almost 12% from 2017. About half a million Sri Lankans depend directly tourism while two million depend on it indirectly.

One of them is Mohomed Musflick, the owner of a souvenir shop in Galle which is full of woodcarvings, local paintings and postcards. “I haven’t sold a single item. There are no tourists and we are in a huge crisis,” he said.

As life gradually returns to normal on the island with the reopening of offices and schools, the tourism industry is in a bad mood at the drop in the number of foreign tourists. Tour operators in Russia, Norway and Britain have canceled bookings until April 2020.

A travel ban issued by nearly a dozen countries is the biggest cause for concern. “The ban is our main concern. Until it is removed or relaxed, we cannot begin our marketing to attract tourists. If it is lifted soon, we hope we can bounce back this year or otherwise next year for sure,” Yogarajah said.

In the meantime, the Sri Lankan government should target “people and countries that are resilient to these kinds of attacks and situations, such as Russia, Israel and India,” Lavanga Resort and Spa general manager Anusha Frydman said. .

The industry is clear on what else it expects from the authorities: to ensure that strict security measures are in place to reassure potential visitors; persuade politicians to set aside their differences and adopt a bipartisan approach to national security; and work fast to get the travel ban lifted.

To help the industry cope, the government has put in place a relief package including easy loans at special rates and tax reductions. The government also plans to create a $100 million insurance fund to compensate any tourist injured or killed while visiting the island.

“In the past, we had many serious crises and we recovered. I am fully confident we can start over,” said Jan van Twest, general manager of Fortress Resort and Spa near Galle, where 750 nights were canceled from May to October.

“But we have to recover, recover very quickly,” he said.