Colombo, Sri Lanka – Late last month, Sri Lankan tourism officials welcomed the arrival of its millionth tourist for 2014 at Bandarankaike International Airport in the capital, Colombo.
According to local newspapers, the tourist, who was travelling with his partner, was received with a special dance and was given a complimentary vacation package.
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The event set the South Asian island nation en route to achieving its target for 1.5 million arrivals this year and on solid ground to meet its 2016 target of 2.5 million arrivals.
Tourism is playing a key role in Sri Lanka’s economic revival following nearly three decades of civil war that ended in 2009 and has been showcased by the government as a post-war success.
According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), tourism contributed $1bn to the economy in 2012, the most recent annual statistics on record. And while the figure represented only 1.7 percent of GDP, it created jobs for 68,000 Sri Lankans and indirect employment for 95,000 more.
From the popular beach town of Negombo on the west coast, to the World Heritage-listed archaeological sites on the northern plains, visitors from the Middle East, Russia, China, India and other emerging markets are driving demand for services hitherto monopolised by Australians and Europeans.
Even in the city of Jaffna in the country’s far north, which as the ground zero of the minority Tamil rebellion was extensively damaged, the air of optimism is palpable as $4bn of government infrastructure projects are set to be completed.
“The government is investing heavily in basic infrastructure, electricity, roads and new airports,” SLTDA Managing Director Rummy Jauffer told Al Jazeera.
“All the big foreign hotel chains – Hyatt, Sheraton, Shangri-La – are coming forward with large new hotel projects and local investors are building boutique properties all around the country. So we are confident we will have the hotel rooms to meet demand.”
Those from the hospitality industry are also seeing an uptick in the number of tourism-related projects and government efforts.
“The rate of change over the past five years has been incredibly quick, especially in terms of infrastructure,” says John Balmond, a British national who owns Palagama Beach, an eco-resort on the Kalpitiya Peninsula 130km north of Colombo. “And it’s all the more impressive that it’s taken place in a country where traditionally things have taken a long time to get done.”
|Tourism contributed $1bn to the economy in 2012, the most recent annual statistics on record. World Heritage site Polonnaruwa ancient city pictured here. [Ian Lloyd Neubauer/ Al Jazeera]
Sri Lanka’s economic revival may be the envy of East Timor, Sierra Leone and other developing nations recovering from prolonged civil conflict. But like its claim to be the first country in the 21st century to have eliminated extremism when it defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka’s tourism boom leaves a lot to be accounted for.
“Accommodating 2.5 million visitors by 2016 will be a very hard task. We can only talk about it in terms of numbers because it all depends on how many rooms we can bring online and where to find staff,” said Roshanlal Perera, general manager of the Tea Factory, an 80-year-old tea factory in the lush tea fields of the Southern Highlands that has been converted into an rustic four-star hotel.
“At present we find it very difficult to find skilled staff,” Perara said. “One of the reasons for that is we have been unable to attract women to join the industry. The people in the country where many of these new hotels are being built, they are still quite reluctant to allow women to work in industry that is so different to their traditional jobs. Many people feel tourism is not the right thing for our culture, and it will take time for them to understand how lucrative it is.”
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Economic Development estimates a workforce of 600,000 will be needed to cater to the tourist influx. However, the country’s tourism and hotel management training schools currently generate only 1,500 newly trained workers every year.
“There is no guidance available for [small entrepreneurs] on the things tourists expect,” said Sereno Barr-Kumar, a former financial analyst who now owns and runs Wilpattu House, a bed and breakfast, bordering Wilpattu National Park.
“Sri Lankans are fairly friendly, but sometimes friendliness is not enough. They need professional training.”
Priyantha Amaranath, manager of St Lachlan Hotel & Suites in Negombo, said: “It is not difficult for Sri Lankans to deal with tourists because hospitality is part of our culture. We are always asking ‘what can we do for you?’. But the language barrier can be a problem,” he said, given that only one in 10 Sri Lankans speak English.
Transportation in Sri Lanka is another area of concern. Destinations such as Jaffna and the historic port of Galle are well-serviced by internal flights, but Sri Lanka’s second largest city Kandy is still awaiting an airport.
Commuting on the roads, meanwhile, is both nerve-racking and painstakingly slow. Auto-rickshaws, locally known as tuk-tuks, and antiquated trucks regularly reduce the flow of traffic on the nation’s two-lane highways to a crawl.
“It’s crazy. The road rules are not like what you expect with buses overtaking on single lane, winding roads,” Jason Lea, a tourist from Australia, told Al Jazeera. “To cover 200km would take two hours back home. But in Sri Lanka it takes all day.”
And while country is making ground promoting its tourism sector overseas, most recently in a taxi advertising campaign featured in 1,200 European taxis, support for local businesses is non-existent.
“How much support have we received from the government? Absolutely nothing,” said the Tea Factory’s Perara. “We had to spent 1 million rupees ($7,700) fixing a public road and we had to install a transformer to bring reliable electricity to this area.”
Moreover, the industry is blamed for the prolific growth in child-sex tourism in coastal areas; a 2012 report by UNICEF estimated there were 30,000 child sex workers in the island nation located on the southern tip of India.
Many people feel tourism is not the right thing for our culture, and it will take time for them to understand how lucrative it is.
From the 1970s to the late 1990s when tourism in Sri Lanka was stunted, the now thriving beach resort of Negombo was a notorious paedophiles’ paradise where hoteliers turned a blind eye to Europeans who used their premises to abuse boys in order to secure bookings.
“We were at war. There were bombs going off everywhere. Child sex tourism was the least of our worries,” a prominent restaurateur in Negombo told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
Tourism chief Jauffer refused to to comment on child-sex tourism.
However, bed and breakfast owner Barr-Kumar was able to shed some light on the matter. “It was a big problem in the past but it’s definitely not that obvious any more,” he said.
Tourism-driven property speculation is another concern. In 2011, an acre of land in Sri Lanka without access to utilities cost $1,000, whereas the same land today costs seven times as much.
“What sent prices rocketing where big hedge funds from China and India that came along buying big lumps of land and selling it on in smaller pieces,” said Balmond of Palagama Beach Resort.
“That was when foreigners could own freehold land, but now things have changed and you need a local partner with at least 51 percent ownership. I think that’s a good thing as it means some of the money from can be kept in the country.”
Last year, bed and breakfast owner Barr-Kumar received an average of one guest a month. This year he’s getting visitors every week.
“This industry has survived early three decades of civil war even though we were beaten to smithereens,” said Tea Factory’s Perera. “We have a long way to go, but we are already harvesting the fruits of all our hard work. In a few years time, we’ll be right on top.”