The end of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war has seen a rapid jump in the number of tourists visiting the island – a leap that officials say represents part of the peace dividend. Tourist arrivals in July increased by 28 per cent from a year ago, the second straight rise since May.
“This is mainly due to the peace situation in the country,” S Kalaiselvam, director general at the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, told Reuters. “We are confident of achieving at least similar to last year’s figure and revenue. Our target is to get 2.5 million tourists and $2.5bn (£1.5bn) revenue in 2016.”
Tourism has long been a key source of revenue for Sri Lanka, which enjoys no fewer than seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and plenty of idyllic beaches. But the trade was badly hit, first by 2004’s devastating tsunami, and then by the reignition of the decades-long civil war a little more than a year later. Since then much of the north of the country has been off-limits to visitors, and the capital, Colombo, has been under threat from suicide bombings.
But the war finally ended in May this year after government troops routed the last remnants of the once powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and killed their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and now it appears that Westerners are beginning to return. In an effort to encourage the resurgence in visitors, the government recently announced a major new 4,000-acre tourist development 100 miles north of Colombo at Kalpitiya.
But the war’s consequences are far from over for civilians caught in the war zone. Around 280,000 are being held in internment camps while they undergo security checks and the government carries out mine-clearing operations. Despite protestations from the government, campaigners say the conditions in these camps are poor and that the civilians should be allowed home.
The country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has vowed to provide a political settlement for the Tamil minority of the country, though he has said this cannot happen yet. In elections earlier this month in the north of Sri Lanka, Mr Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance swept to victory in Sinhalese-dominated Uva province and scraped a win in Jaffna. Less pleasing for the government, the Tamil National Alliance – political allies of the defeated LTTE rebels – won control of Vavuniya.