This week saw two welcome pieces of news about Sri Lanka: the government has announced that it is to pour 700 million rupees (about £4m) into a new push on tourism, while here in the UK, the Foreign Office has relaxed its travel advice to the country.
Combined with the end of the bloody 30 year civil war between government forces and the Tamil tigers earlier this year, you’d think the time has finally come for the country to fulfill it’s potential as a prime destination for tourists. Yet history shows that any such thoughts have to be treated with caution.
As some of you will know, I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami; sent there to report on the disaster, I was horrified by just how catastrophic it was. It’s only when you can walk 2 or 3km inland and still find flattened houses and rotting corpses that you realise the hopelessness of trying to find the words to describe the absolute devastation to people back home.
Yet, I was touched by the warmth of a people who could shed their cloak of grief long enough to throw out a welcome fit for kings for anyone who offered to help. I lost count of the times we were invited for dinner in the ruins of a flattened house, shaded only by tarpaulin, and our hosts would insist on not eating a mouthful until we were sated.
I was also mesmerised by a country so beautiful, you could exhaust every travel cliché you wished: gorgeous beaches, lush jungles, high tipped mountains, ancient civilisations…
In those ancient times, Sri Lanka was known as Serendip and it’s where the word serendipity comes from. Finding myself there was certainly a dictionary definition case of ‘the discovery of something fortunate when looking for something unrelated’. I went looking for news stories and found unimaginable compassion, great wisdom (in others, not so much myself, I hasten to add) and a spiritual home.
One of the frustrating things about Sri Lanka though is that it always seems to be a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ when it comes to getting tourism back on track. Whether the endless to and fro of the civil war, the tsunami, the current recession or the incessant government red tape (it’s little wonder the tourist board PR account is passed around like a poisoned chalice among London’s best agencies), there is always something that seems to stymie the country’s progess.
Whatsmore, many people I know in the country are not convinced the Tamil threat has come to an end. The government may now have finally regained control over the whole island but it was attained at great loss to Tamil civilians. It would be of little surprise if a new generation of martyrs was not created in the government ‘victory’. The death of minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a good friend of the independent volunteer movement I worked with through 2005, and 14 others in a suicide bombing at the start of a marathon race last year is enough to prove that it only takes one person to create mayhem.
And yet others are convinced the war is over. My friend and colleague Juliet Coombe who now lives in Sri Lanka says: ‘This time I really believe it’s a done deal and people will be able to earn a decent wage, and not just $50 a month and finally have some choices.’
I can only hope that she is right and this is not another case of the calm before yet another storm. Because Sri Lanka and her people finally deserve something better.
Have you recently come back from Sri Lanka? Would you consider going? What are your thoughts on the country? Let me know by commenting below