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A View from (not so) Afar: Nick's Sri Lanka post-trip report

by Nick Pulley on 25th November 2022

This View from Afar is, in fact, a view from not so far at all, as I collated and wrote much of what follows during my recent travels in Sri Lanka. It was a real joy to be back in the country after many years, meeting old friends and colleagues and making a first visit to a few areas. One of the things I love most about travelling is meeting people and getting an understanding of a country’s culture, both historic and current. I try not to take the obvious or popular view on board unchallenged, preferring to talk things through in situ before forming an impression. I’ve been eager to get my feet on the ground in Sri Lanka as soon as it felt right to do so, to get a fuller understanding of what’s been happening and the challenges that remain.

What follows is intended to serve a dual purpose. Firstly, to give some insight into the state of play in Sri Lanka, with the summer protests (thankfully) now becoming a distant memory; to unpick what led to them and what we can expect going forward. Secondly, to consider the role that tourism could - and should - play in supporting people in countries impacted by political and economic crises; the rights and wrongs, where the line should be drawn etc.

What are things like in Sri Lanka at the moment?

Blanket descriptions of any country’s population always feel crass - people are a rich and varied tapestry of opinion and emotion the world over - but there’s no doubt that Sri Lanka is an incredibly friendly country. On the whole, visitors are greeted with genuine and effusive warmth. You can find yourself breaking into conversation with strangers at any time and people usually seem ready and enthusiastic to give each other their full attention. They are also humblingly pragmatic and resilient. 

Whilst Sri Lanka’s management of the pandemic was, in my opinion, amongst the best in the Asia region, the political turmoil since early in 2022 has created havoc for the population, attracted a lot of negative press coverage, and taken the Sri Lankan economy to the brink. Prior to my visit, I’d had weekly conversations with my closest connections in Sri Lanka throughout the summer, and felt I had a good understanding of the day-to-day situation. However, this still lacked the nuances of context and broader understanding that you can only gain by speaking to a diverse spread of people face-to-face.

Having spent over two weeks travelling reasonably extensively throughout Sri Lanka (west, central and south), I have no hesitation in stating that it is both appropriate and safe to travel in Sri Lanka right now. Safe, in the sense that your travels would not be impacted by protests; appropriate, in the sense that travellers being there is positive for the country and the people, rather than a drain on their resources, and not insensitive to the plight or suffering of large sections of the population. Visitors are very, very welcome.

What is the situation with tourism in Sri Lanka at the moment?

It’s really bad. It’s truly shocking to see a country such as Sri Lanka, which relies so heavily on international travel, and is such an extraordinary place to visit, laid so low. By way of a quick recap, the UK’s FCDO issued an advisory against travel to Sri Lanka at the beginning of the summer when the protests against President Rajapaksa grew, both in frequency and in numbers attending. The FCDO initially removed this restriction after only a few weeks, however it was reinstated just a matter of weeks later and stayed in place until September.

Whilst it’s fair to state that the UK FCDO is not regarded with quite the same level of global authority as it was pre-Brexit, other governments still take its position on such matters into account, and many follow its lead. And rightly so; they know what they’re doing and often know a lot that we don’t. However, negative media reports really fanned the flames, quite literally at times with an isolated car burning being reported by some as a city-wide inferno.

Throughout the summer, even at the height of the protests, I was confident that it would have been safe to travel in almost all areas of the country in the company of a local, well-informed guide. However, at that point I felt that it would not have been appropriate to do so. There were severe fuel and food shortages, and a lack of clarity as to the direction things were going. Many people were scared and the government had broken down. There were stories of the president and his cronies leaving the country en masse, quite literally boarding planes with bags stuffed with cash. This was clearly not an appropriate time to travel there. At Selective Asia this meant refunding or postponing all of our Sri Lanka summer departures, and it turned off the tap for new Sri Lanka enquiries. This was the same across the entire travel industry.

However, despite the situation now having improved to the point where travel is not only appropriate but, arguably, vital to getting the economy back to its peak, visitor numbers are still devastatingly low. Although I visited in October, which is considered low season, in normal years many hotels would still expect to be running at 40-60% occupancy. I stayed in 10 properties, and visited many more, and at approximately 75% I was the only guest. At Anuradhapura, one of the country’s most important religious and cultural sites, I counted 8 tourists in total. At Wilpattu National Park, where rangers would normally expect to be sharing the park with 60-70 jeeps on a busy day, there were just 7. In restaurants I dined alone; the roads were deserted. 

How do the Sri Lankan people feel?

This is, of course, a very subjective question. I can't even attempt to begin to represent the vast array of opinions held by Sri Lankans. What I can say with some confidence is that the people of Sri Lanka are disappointed and frustrated with the situation. Whilst evidence of corruption in government can be traced back to the early 1970s, a certain level had (as I understand it) been accepted as an unavoidable part of life. What changed this time was that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took it to a whole new level, whilst simultaneously driving many people to previously unknown levels of poverty, and it simply couldn't be tolerated any longer. By this time only a tiny percentage of the population supported Rajapaksa, and these were an extremely privileged few that stood to benefit most from his rule, including his rumoured looting of the country’s economy. 

The country has been extremely let down by its leaders, and many people told me how they feel personally robbed. And they have been. They want investment in basics like roads, infrastructure, education and welfare. They want a country that the young people want to stay in. They want elections soon so that they can democratically choose their next leader (although the current president, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe - who was voted in by his party - is widely considered to be the right person and have the necessary political and economic experience for the immediate challenges). There is, however, an overriding sense of united determination and togetherness. This kind of camaraderie is an inspiring thing to be amongst, and undoubtedly one of the key highlights of my recent trip. 

Where does Sri Lanka go from here?

Things are undoubtedly greatly improved from earlier this year. A new government has been formed and, whilst not universally popular or democratically chosen, is felt to be right for the job in hand. 

The fuel crisis is under control - queues were rare throughout my trip. The food shortages and cost of living crisis are still a reality, certainly, but not to the extent that many media outlets would have you believe. People in the countryside have access to plentiful amounts of food, although the poorer population in urban areas are still facing some real challenges. 

A very hot topic of conversation during my trip was a new tax that has been introduced to enable the government to make repayments on their bailout and various other loans. This is the first time that many ordinary earners have been asked to pay income tax, but those that I spoke to seemed to be in favour of it. They see the practicalities - for an economy to function it needs to generate money. What they are far less happy about is the likely ‘slippage’ of their tax payments - how much of it will actually reach its intended destination. Some degree of ‘unofficial’ monetary transfer (I’m loath to say corruption) has become par for the course in transactions across all levels of Sri Lankan society, so it’s understandable that people contributing their hard-earned money towards helping Sri Lanka clamber out of its economic mess may worry about where that money ends up, but hopefully things are changing for the better in that respect.

How does tourism help and why should we be helping?

Firstly, through direct economic benefit. Estimates for the number of people employed (directly or indirectly) by tourism in the country vary quite wildly, but I'm comfortable saying it's in the region of 10% of all Sri Lankan jobs, which is huge. 

Wildlife conservation and community support-focused projects are almost all partly or entirely funded by tourism. The Sri Lankan government’s record of mismanaging land and wildlife is staggering (that’s a topic for another day), and it’s tourism that predominantly funds the projects that help protect them.

A lack of foreign currency is at the very root of the county’s continuing economic woes, and when you book travel from overseas, you are sending desperately needed foreign currency into the country.

Then there is the moral argument about whether we should, and to this I say an unequivocal yes. Sri Lanka is a destination that we love during the good times and we cannot turn our backs on it when it’s in trouble.

A thought on sustainability…

There is a strong argument for travel to Sri Lanka through a responsible travel lens. In travel, when we talk about the bigger sustainability picture, beyond simply reducing the carbon cost of flight, one of the single most important aims must be the distribution of wealth, whether this be through employment, tourism spend, or supporting conservation and communities.

We all love staying in luxurious places where we can feel pampered and eat delicious food. However, we must ensure that the people who look after us whilst we’re there are paid well, that the building’s impact on the surroundings has been considered, and that the money generated reaches the local community. When you stay at an independent Sri Lankan property, the money goes straight to the people. Salaries are almost always higher, there are community support initiatives, and food and services are purchased locally. It's not unusual for 3 or 4 members of a family to be employed at the same property. Whilst there’s no issue with staying in the occasional international chain hotel, the chances are that your money quickly exits the country you’re visiting and makes its way to a shiny HQ elsewhere in the world.  

This was a long read, so thanks for sticking with me. There are many, many other benefits to travelling to a country that’s having a tough time which we haven’t touched upon, but this excellent article by Justin Francis - the CEO of ResponsibleTravel.com - shines a light on many of them. In essence, Sri Lanka is firmly open for business, and we’re thrilled that their path is finally looking so much brighter. We can’t wait for you to visit …