Bravely, Sri Lanka battles

Despite the drop in tourists to Sri Lanka, its tourist board remains optimistic. CLARK KELLY reports
Gathering the famous Ceylon tea

Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka have dropped 25 per cent to 224,791 visitors for the first six months of 2007, compared to the same period last year, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Board.

At the same time tourism earnings, a key source of foreign currency for the island nation, have declined 14.8pc to $130.8 million in the first four months of the year, according to the central bank.
Tourists are staying away following months of heavy fighting mainly in the north and east, but also attacks near the capital and the international airport.
Sri Lanka's only international airport resumed around-the-clock operations this month after air raids by the Tamil Tiger rebels forced its closure at night from May. Airlines use Sri Lanka as a transit point for travel between Europe and the Far East. Passengers from the Maldives, a key tourist destination, regularly fly via Colombo, which is regarded a regional hub.
Hoteliers in the country, meanwhile, have slashed rates to win back tourists, but this has had marginal impact.
The island has struggled to attract tourists in the aftermath of the tsunami of December 2004 as a result of escalating tensions between the Tamil Tigers and the government.
Some hotels are being forced to close as occupancy levels plummet, UK newspaper The Telegraph reported. In May, tourist arrivals fell by 40 per cent compared with the same month last year.
Despite the troubles, however, foreigners are not usually affected and the tourism board is optimistic that despite the setbacks, 2007 will close well.
“We are delighted to reassure hoteliers and others in the hotel industry that the UK does not advise against travel to Sri Lanka,” eTN quoted a spokesperson from the British high Commission in Colombo as saying. “It only advises against travel to the North and East of the country where guerrilla fighting continues.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's Ministry of Tourism is seeking to promote high-spending niche tourism to the country with the appointment of a new advisory council led by the private sector.
“These tourists they do not travel in groups, they travel either individually or as couples but they spend three to four times a day than a normal ‘package’ tourist,” additional secretary to the Ministry of Tourism George Michael, told media.
Three per cent of tourists are responsible for 30 per cent of the money spent by all tourists in the world, yet Sri Lanka is yet to benefit form this segment, he said.
The Ministry is looking at improving the tourism sector with the support of every Sri Lankan that would care to extend their support.
“We have created a platform for every professional to come and collaborate to the tourism industry,” Michael said.
At the moment 120 volunteers has joined and the ministry says the responsibility lies in every citizen to uplift the industry. The council expects to set the administration and the ground situation to facilitate niche tourism and make it more convenient for first class tourists.
The council looks to improve transportation as well set minimum standards for boutique hotels which attracts the first class tourists.
The Ministry plans on improving the railway system and starting a domestic flight service as a solution for transport issues.
The ministry also has created two more councils for Ayurvedic tourism and Golf tourism to market Sri Lanka in those segments.
At the moment approximately 300,000 people in Sri Lanka depend on the tourism industry.