Selective Asia’s founder Nick just left Sri Lanka after one of his regular trips to spend time with our ‘in-country’ teams, catch up with our local guides, and stay involved in the nitty-gritty. This particular visit had an additional more serious purpose than usual - to get a first hand understanding of Sri Lanka’s security situation, and start mapping out a recovery plan with the team. Whilst awaiting his homeward flight, Nick wrote home about his discoveries:
‘It was a strange mixed feeling - to arrive in Galle just a few days ago and discover the historic ramparts empty of tourists, and to have the pick of rooms - and suites - at the wonderful Galle Fort Hotel.
As a company of travel enthusiasts, we’ve grown to accept that ‘best kept secrets’ will become well known; that our favourite beaches cannot hold the same allure year after year, and that places will modernise and take their own new directions. Who are we to insist that anyone puts their own advancement aside so that we can enjoy ‘developing world travel’ experiences? It can be a strong impulse to fight, but fight it we do!
So in normal circumstances, having Galle to myself would be a dream come true - but these are not normal circumstances. Far from it. On April 21st this year, eight bombs were detonated in churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, killing at least 207 people and injuring 450. The loss of life is horrifying, and any attempt to divide society is deeply saddening. In the aftermath, while the international headlines have moved on, the residents of Sri Lanka are left absorbing an impact that is far less gruesome, but heavy nonetheless.
After the island’s 25 year civil war ended in 2009, tourism emerged from the dust-cloud as Sri Lanka’s third largest industry, behind tea and money sent home by an exported workforce. Immediately after ‘the incident’, as I was soon hearing the April attack euphemistically referred to, visitor numbers dried up overnight and the local travel industry fell to its knees. As it did so, I could almost hear my friends and colleagues mutter ‘not again’. This recent darling of the global travel press (LP’s destination of 2019, no less) has suffered ‘incidents’ before, and it knows what’s coming. Or, more to the point, what isn’t.
I’m not here to debate the rights and wrongs of the complex international decisions which followed the attacks. Many of you will have already heard enough from me on the ins and outs of the UK’s and other countries’ foreign office positions. For what it’s worth, in the main I think the situation was handled well, and timelines were fair. But fair or not, it doesn’t alter the seismic changes that were triggered across Sri Lanka’s travel industry.
In the days that followed April 21st, incoming visitor numbers understandably evaporated. Although many tourists already on island chose to stay (and clients of ours who were there tell us they continued to enjoy their travels greatly, and were much appreciated by the people they met along the way), the bulk of the traffic was exiting the island. So far, nothing unexpected.
Travel business owners - hotels, shops, tour companies, restaurants, independent guides, boat owners, plantation owners, drivers, car hire companies and many more - were immediately faced with some tough decisions. Some level headed hotel owners, such as the team at Fort Printers, immediately called in the builders and set about renovating or simply applying a fresh lick of paint. Others shut up shop, and others stayed open to see what came. Unfortunately, not much.
Along with spending time with my Sri-Lanka based colleagues in Mt Lavinia, I’ve travelled to Galle, Una Watuna, and also spent a few days in Colombo itself - the scene of so much devastation. I wanted to understand the levels of security in place, and get a sense of the mood from the people on the street, the locals at the small eats stalls, and the worshippers at the churches, temples and mosques.
It’s been a very worthwhile experience, and I’ve enjoyed my week in country immensely, despite many sad conversations and spending time with friends that I know are extremely concerned about the future.
Yes there is a security presence, at a level you are grateful for, rather than one that feels oppressive. The balanced conversation around the incident depicts a maturity we should all aim for, after what was, after all, an act of unexpected terrorism (regardless of what some media outlets enjoyed speculating about at the time).
Just this morning, I walked past St Anthony’s church, and aside from the security barrier along the front, it was no different to the last time I visited. Visually impressive as ever, with a menacing backdrop of port cranes lining the skyline behind it. The Shangri-La facing Galle Green is open for business as usual, with no visual signs of the explosion. Parking on the Galle Road in this area has been stopped, making the area quieter, which means that the food stalls on the seafront are thinner on the ground at night.
We managed to get a last minute table at the Galleria, which is unusual, but the atmosphere was busy enough for another excellent night. The cricket is howzating across the city, and the crowds are every bit as big for the Sri Lanka games as they ever were (England, what are you doing?!!!). The markets are bustling - there is an increased security presence visible, but the soldiers smile and are keen to engage in conversation. The city is going about its business as usual.
There is no avoiding the fact, however, that the significant count of cancellations that followed April 21st, and the natural concern and stigma that will surround Sri Lanka in the short to mid term, is going to be extremely damaging to many, many people. Jobs are already being lost. Businesses will go under, and damage is being done to the reputation of this loving island.
Perhaps the saddest part is it doesn’t need to be this way. I understand, of course, why this kind of fallout occurs - we see it all over the world. However, I do feel that it’s important to ask how differently people feel about the idea of returning to SL now, compared to visiting the US after the Boston Marathon bombing, England after Manchester Arena, or NZ after Christchurch mosque. Sri Lanka is just another victim of a global terror strategy that hopes to divide us all - and I’m determined that we don’t let terror win.
Sri Lanka is very much open for business. The extremely low visitor numbers and amazing deals now appearing - on top of the usual welcoming smile, great weather, fantastic food, and all those other delightful treats that usually make Sri Lanka so enticing - are combining to create what is arguably the travel opportunity of the decade.
Although I don’t expect this missive to single-handedly change the fate of Sri Lanka’s travel industry, but if we can nudge it in the right direction by encouraging conversation, raising some awareness, and perhaps prompting one or two more people to make the trip this year, then it’s a very worthwhile hour waiting to leave a land that I challenge anyone not to fall in love with.’