Tourist arrivals reduced to a trickle after Easter blasts: Unawatuna in peril? | Sunday Observer

Tourist arrivals reduced to a trickle after Easter blasts: Unawatuna in peril?

Unawatuna, one of the world’s best beaches has turned into an empty stretch of sand after the brutal Easter Sunday attacks. (Pix: Dushmantha Mayadunne)
Unawatuna, one of the world’s best beaches has turned into an empty stretch of sand after the brutal Easter Sunday attacks. (Pix: Dushmantha Mayadunne)

George Warneke, a German, has visited Sri Lanka several times since 2002. The Sunday Observer met George a few days ago, while he and his spouse Siggie were soaking up the sun on the beach in Unawatuna.

Unawatuna, one of the world’s best beaches has turned into an empty stretch of sand after the brutal Easter Sunday attacks. Unlike the 30-year-war, the attacks deliberately targeted foreign nationals - three bombs were blasted at top level tourist hotels with another failed attempt, resulting in many countries issuing travel warnings against Sri Lanka. Tourist hot spots such as Unawatuna are facing perhaps the biggest uncertainty ever and its community where about 90 percent are dependent on tourism (directly or indirectly) is going through severe hardships.

George and Siggie arrived in Sri Lanka on June 28 and went directly to Unawatuna. George, a passionate diver, was planning to visit the east coast next week.

“The bomb attacks were horrible. Now people in Europe think Sri Lanka is a very dangerous place to visit, when its really not. We experienced similar problems in Europe too. There were bomb attacks in Paris and Berlin. Any place in the world could be unsafe, that way.

“After visiting Trincomalee we will come back to Unawatuna again and then fly to Germany. Unfortunately, I have work. Otherwise I would stay here much longer,” he said. George has his factory in Germany where he restores vintage motorcycles.

Even though tourists like George and Siggie find it calm and quiet with less numbers of tourists, the livelihood of the people of Unawatuna is at rock bottom just now.

“There are about 3,000 rooms in the area, available for tourists, including hotels, guest houses, villas, hostels and homestays. Out of these 3,000, I don’t think even 50 are currently occupied. In addition, there are about 500 businesses which are directly linked to tourism. All these are at a low due to the drop of visitors,” Secretary, Tourist Business Association, Unawatuna, Rupasena Koswattage told the Sunday Observer.

However, as a concession to SME sector players in the tourism industry, the government introduced a relief package which included the waiving off of bank loans taken to develop tourism related businesses, for one year.

“We are happy about this package. But there were some loopholes. After our protests, the government listened to our demands and changed them. However, there is no one to look after micro level vendors,” Rupasena said.

Proprietor, Summer Garden restaurant, Unawatuna, Priyanka Dias Abeygunawardene had a lot to say about tourism’s failure in the area.

“No government has looked at tourism with the workers in mind. Hundreds of thousands do not have jobs today,” she said.

In her restaurant she has eight employees, excluding family members. Amid financial difficulties she had not laid off a single member of her staff. “How can I eat anything when my employees have nothing to eat. So even if it is a loss for me, I did not ask them to leave their jobs.

“Now we can run the restaurant with two kilos of fish for about a week. Now I do not see the man who brought herbs for my restaurant. Everyone is affected by the bomb attacks,” she said.

Pradeep Sumathirathne (Sumathi) is a famous diver in the area. He owns a diving centre with five boats and a few jet skis. The drop in tourist arrivals has hit his business severely too.

“Russians are our main clientele. Only about 25 tourists turned up during the last three months. Before this incident we had an average turnover of 300 tourists per month.

“My monthly loan rental is Rs. 65,000 for my jet skis engines alone. I have to spend all my savings to run the business. I am truly glad that I saved some money during the last season. My diving centre had eight divers. They are now jobless,”Sumathi said.

Owner of the Balana Garden Hotel, Amaraweera, said “We had a few guests recently. They were all budget travellers who do not spend money. I had to bring down prices up to 60-70 percent in order to survive. But still the tourists are not coming. This is a very sad situation.

“I say that the government is not doing anything to uplift tourism. If you take other countries like Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia they do advertising with CNN, BBC and Aljazeera. But Sri Lanka does advertising at the BIA. It is just hilarious,”he said

Chandrasiri, the owner of Happy Nights, a guest house, said that he had never experienced such a drop in tourism in the past 15 years. “We did not receive any support from the government. We heard that RDB (Ruhunu Development Bank) is granting a loan to tourism business owners. When we visited the bank, they said that all applications were already distributed,”said Chandrasiri in a disappointed tone.

It is not only hotel and restaurant owners who are affected by the drop in tourists. “We used to earn Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 4,000 per day as there were plenty of tourist hires. But now there were some days we returned home after earning only Rs 100 for the whole day,” a three wheel driver, L.H. Nandasena said.

“The Government is looking after big hoteliers. They do not bother about us,” he complained.

The term ‘tourism’ brings us a picture of hotels, restaurants, coaches and souvenir shops. But it has other annotations also. Vineetha Bandara’s business is aimed at giving an authentic Sri Lankan experience to foreign tourists. She visits the Sathipola (weekly fair) with tourists to choose vegetables, fruits and sea food. Then she demonstrates how a traditional Sri Lankan meal is prepared.

In May and June this year, she had zero clients in her cookery class where she normally has 30-40 tourists.

“My class was number one on TripAdviser a few months ago. It has been three months after the terrorist attack and yet we are struggling to get back to normalcy,” she said.

Sri Lanka’s traditional tourism season is October to March based on Europeans fleeing from Winter in the northern hemisphere. This changed to ‘all times of the year’ with the arrival of Indian, Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese travellers.

“It is true that this is the off-season. But in the last few years we did not experience difficulties as Russian and Chinese tourists were here.

“I run a guesthouse and restaurant.We built our lives through tourism. Now we are facing many difficulties and the government is not looking after us,” said Priyani Matarage, SLPP local council member, Habaraduwa Pradeshiya Sabha.

Director General Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Upali Ratnayake said that the rebuilding of tourism after the Easter Sunday attacks is supervised by the Ministry of Finance. “In addition there is a cabinet sub committee on this subject now. We (SLTDA) are also in discussion with them.This sub committee is working towards resolving the issues of people in these areas. But we heard that some areas are a little behind progress-wise,” he said.

Despite several attempts, Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunge was not available for comment.