Sri Lanka bombings: three months on, tourism workers tell their stories
The Easter attacks hit the tourist trade hard. We talk to five Sri Lankans, whose livelihoods depend on visitors, about hardship, recovery and hope
May and June are the low season in Sri Lanka, but this year, following the Easter Sunday bombings, tourism ground to a halt. Hotels were empty, beaches were deserted and popular attractions that had been starting to suffer from overtourism were eerily quiet. The UK Foreign Office’s warning against all but essential travel was issued on April 25, effectively forcing UK holidaymakers to either cancel or postpone bookings.
Visitors in May were down 70% year on year. After the FCO changed its advice six weeks later on 6 June – and other countries lifted their restrictions – visitor numbers rose a little but were still 57% down year on year.
“We had four yoga groups in May and June – they all had to cancel,” says Kevin Abbott, owner of Jim’s Farm Villas in central Sri Lanka. “We effectively closed the hotel. Last weekend we had our first guests since the attack.”
Three months after the bombings, the return of guests is a relief not just to Abbot but to the 20 staff who work at his hotel. During its closure, the staff were paid two-thirds of their normal salary and had 14 days off a month instead of seven. As of 1 July, all staff are back on full-time wages but Abbott believes occupancy rates are likely to be 50% lower than usual into 2020.
In some ways people employed by hotels have been more fortunate than many other Sri Lankans who rely on tourism for their livelihoods. Most luxury hotels kept their staff on, albeit on lower wages. “Instead of laying associates off, we decided to speak to all of them immediately after the attack, and instructed all the managers to focus on training and developing their skills in order to prepare for the regular flow of tourists in time to come,” says Hashan Cooray, marketing director of Jetwing Hotels.
But thousands tuktuk drivers, guides, souvenir and food sellers who are dependent on tourist spending saw their income disappear overnight.
At Tuktuk Rental, a Colombo-based company that hires out tuktuks to travellers, bookings fell by 98% after the bombings. The operator rents tuktuks from local drivers rather than owning its own fleet of vehicles. “Almost all of our tuktuk suppliers are on financial loans with monthly instalments, which of course continue even without bookings,” says manager Wietse Sennema. “We have had 10 tuktuk owners that had to sell their vehicles because they could not pay their finance on it anymore. Others had their tuktuks impounded by the finance company.”
Now, says Sennema, bookings are “improving much faster than expected” and the company has been able to give drivers an interest-free loan to get their vehicles back. This week in London, the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, a group of over 160 hoteliers and tour operators, launched a campaign to revive tourism to the country. So far much of the publicity has focused on deals and the fact that tourists will have some of the country’s biggest sights to themselves. But, for Sam Clark, founder of Experience Travel Group and a co-founder of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, the greatest benefit to travellers going now is the knowledge that their trip will have a direct and significant impact on local lives.
“By returning to Sri Lanka and experiencing the country, it is ordinary Sri Lankans that you are helping most: your spending money goes much further, much faster than you might imagine. Just your presence in the country is taken as an endorsement of their efforts to recover,” says Clark.
Our local writer spoke to five Sri Lankans about their experience in the past three months and their hopes for the coming months.
Anjula Fernando, chauffeur-guide
Anjula has worked as a freelance chauffeur-guide for the last seven years. It can be a good career: in the past, during the high season from Christmas to April, he would take home 300,000 Sri Lankan rupees a month (£1,370-£1,600). Most chauffeur-guides maintain their own vehicles, though many have staggeringly high monthly loans to repay, meaning they have to work a set number of days just to break even. For Anjula, this equates to £92 a month: manageable when work is good, as it has been for the last few years, but a problem when work dries up. Other drivers are dogged by much bigger loans, someover £460 a month, showing a blind determination to succeed in an industry that has grown exponentially over the last decade, since the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009.
Anjula usually prepares for the quieter season (May to October) by keeping money aside to tide him over, but with no idea when bookings will pick up again, he has decided to sell his car.
“I’m considering going to work in Dubai for a year or two, until tourism picks up again here,” he says. “I got married last year and we’ve decided to wait until things are settled before having children.” It’s a common theme, and local travel companies reliant on their drivers are keen to keep them. A knowledgable and amiable chauffeur-guide can help make a holiday. .
Despite everything, Anjula considers himself lucky. He lives less than a mile from St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, where he usually attends mass – and where more than 100 people died in the worst of the Easter Sunday terror attacks. He overslept that morning. Had he not, he and his wife would probably have been among the casualties.
Ruwan Pushpakumara, Udawalawe jeep driver
For those passionate about wildlife, Sri Lanka is a place of great diversity, where leopard, sloth bears and elephants reside within 22 protected national parks. The attraction of higher-than-average earnings has lured some into safari-guiding, despite not having – nor, incredibly, needing – any formal wildlife training. But some parks are now oversubscribed, and the recent loss of business has left many in the industry reeling.
Jeep driver Ruwan lives near Udawalawe national park, a southern reserve with a vast reservoir backed by the mist-laden mountains of the Hill Country. Elephants are part of life here: for some this is a blessing, as this is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see them in the wild; for others they are pests that stray into farmland and destroy or consume crops.
More than 400 jeeps are registered with the park, so it helps that Ruwan has been the go-to driver for new safari lodge Camp Hasthi, which opened last year. He also helps in the camp, which has four permanent tents with attached toilets and solar power, plus gardens of vegetables and mangos. Community-orientated, the camp’s owners employ local villagers like Ruwan and source fish and fresh produce from local suppliers. As the sole breadwinner in the family –supporting his wife, three-month-old son, parents and mother-in-law – Ruwan was earning a “comfortable” average of £185 a month doing a job he loved.
After the attacks, Ruwan started working as a labourer to make ends meet, and eventually, with Camp Hasthi’s help, purchased a plough. He was also fortunate to have his father’s four-acres of land to fall back on. Having neglected it in favour of jeep driving, it’s now newly ploughed and seeded, and he hopes it will earn a profit when it’s harvested next year. Ruwan has learned a valuable lesson, too, and vows to keep it going even when the tourists return.
Mark Forbes, Colombo walking tours
With Colombo the focus of the Easter attacks, stays in the capital were quickly scrapped from visitors’ itineraries. Parks and promenades, shopping centres and dining quarters fell silent in the weeks following. Colombo resident Mark Forbes (a Dutch Burgher), founder of Colombo City Walks, received many cancellations.
He was also unable to honour the walk requests that did come in since access to the colonial-era Fort, focus of his most popular walks, was in an out-of-bounds high-security zone. Another of his key neighbourhoods, the Pettah, a multi-ethnic maze of streets selling wholesale items such as electronics and haberdashery to the entire country, had also fallen quiet.
Security in Colombo has often been tight as a result of the civil war, however its renaissance since hostilities ceased has been astounding. Health-food cafes, rooftop bars, jogging tracks, restaurant districts, contemporary art galleries and high-rise condos and shopping centres have transformed it into a modern city.
Visitors combine Mark’s three-hour morning or afternoon walks with shopping in Barefoot or Paradise Road, and a meal in the Ministry of Crab, a restaurant within the sensitively renovated Old Dutch Hospital in Fort. Offering twice-daily walks, including hosting groups from passing cruise ships, Mark’s team has grown to four.
Since the beginning of July, Mark has noticed a dramatic increase in enquiries compared with May and June. Security is less tight around Fort and cordoned-off areas have reopened. Footfall is increasing in public areas and vendors working in the Pettah have mostly returned. Mark is feeling positive that resilient Colombo will soon return to form.
For 30 years Ratnasiri has been strolling the curve of Unawatuna beach, not far from the former Dutch colonial city of Galle, on the south-west coast, selling souvenirs to tourists from a black holdall. With his hands clutching a hand-hewn elephant, a stilt fishermen and a cascade of garishly painted key tag masks – all common souvenirs – he tells me some of his most successful days as a vendor were during the civil war, when souvenir shops – which now line the road uninterrupted into Unawatuna – were few and far between.
Ratnasiri used to carve many items by hand but now just makes the key tags and buys the rest from wholesalers.
Ratnasiri lives with his wife in Galle, though he didn’t bother making the 15km round-trip to Unawatuna in the eight weeks following the attacks, as the beach was deserted. During the high-season, Ratnasiri might take home £12 to £14 a day, though the fall in visitor numbers means he’s earned very little in the past few months, and things are uncertain this year. Yet Ratnasiri remains upbeat.
He tells me he survived the after-effects of the 2004 tsunami and has noticed more tourists in recent weeks. “It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” he asks, rhetorically, as his eyes dart around the formerly heaving beach seeking out the handful of potential customers wading in and out of an ocean that’s calm and vibrantly blue.
Sidantha Elikewela, eco-tourism guide
At home in Sri Lanka’s hills, nature reserves and most-untouched regions, Sidantha (Sid) has been working in the tourist industry for more than 15 years. Finding the corporate world a bad fit for his adventurous spirit, Sid found refuge in Walpolamulla, a tiny hamlet only accessible on foot, deep within the Knuckles, a vast mountainous forest conservation area to the north-east of Kandy. Taken in by his “non-biological grandparents”, he found the solace and simplicity of life in this cut-off region so inspiring that when elephants finally forced them from their home, and down into the nearest village, he revived it as a homestay for his small eco-tourism, profit-sharing venture, Abode Tours.
Unlike most village experiences in Sri Lanka, residents here live a self-sustaining life, devoid of TVs, 4G and wifi, and unaffected by outside events – so much so that tourism revenue is supplementary, rather than integral to their income. So as not to upset the balance of local life, Sid sends just a small number of “travel-hardened” guests there a year, combining the visits with other less-visited areas, such as Gal Oya national park and north-westerly Mannar, where Sid has another homestay, Hibernate, looked after by a Tamil-Hindu family in the fishing and toddy-tapping (palm wine) trades.
While his beneficiaries aren’t reliant on tourism, Sid has had to contend with cancellations since the Easter attacks. He’s had to put off or cancel projects as there’s not much “in the kitty” to do the usual upgrades and repairs, though he worries about the suppliers he’s let down. Keen to focus his energies on Abode and Hibernate, he remains dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka. Just three weeks ago he received a big boost – a booking for 14 people – and feels things are looking up.