Sri Lankans urge foreign tourists to help revive hard-hit economy

Government imposes curfew as soaring economic crisis is crippling personal finances

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Sri Lankans have urged foreign tourists not to cancel travel plans as the South Asian island battles power cuts linked to soaring fuel prices and a foreign currency crisis.

A three-day curfew was imposed by the government from Saturday as protests against food and fuel shortages were held.

“The current situation is affecting the tourism industry in our country,” Theekshana Lankadhikara, 40, a cookery teacher from Ella, told The National by phone.

“We are just trying to recover from the horrifying pandemic and now the hours-long power cuts and gasoline scarcity is making tourists think twice about visiting our country.

We are just trying to recover from the horrifying pandemic and now the hours-long power cuts and gasoline scarcity is making tourists think twice about visiting our country
Theekshana Lankadhikara, cookery teacher

“Tourists are the only option we have to earn some good foreign currency these days.

“We try so hard to be friendly and welcoming to our guests so they will go home and recommend Sri Lanka as a place to visit to others."

The country is in the grips of its worst economic downturn in decades, sparked by a lack of foreign currency to pay for essential imports.

Sri Lanka was hit hard by terrorist bombings on churches and hotels in Easter 2019 — the same year it was ranked the world's number one travel destination by Lonely Planet — and by the coronavirus pandemic.

The island welcomed 194,000 foreign tourists in 2021, down from 1.9 million in 2019 and 2.3 million in 2018.

A catastrophic oil spill in 2021, when the X-Press Pearl sank off the coast of Colombo, caused an environmental disaster. Chemicals and tiny plastic pellets called nurdles continue to wash up on the island's famous beaches.

The broader downturn led to an import ban on foreign goods in a bid to save foreign currency needed to service the country's billions of dollars in foreign debt.

As fuel resources diminish, electricity rationing continues to be enforced and the cost of living rises, the shortages have sparked power cuts.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked laws that allow the military to arrest and detain protesters without warrants. He said the state of emergency was necessary to protect public order and maintain essential supplies and services.

While the majority of protests are taking place around Colombo, other areas of the country are experiencing daily blackouts.

Frustrated with his government, Lahiru, a safari guide for Udawalawe National Park, said he is relying on custom and tips from tourists to survive. He did not want to give his full name.

“Only rich people can live in Sri Lanka now,” he told The National.

“Poor people are suffering because of the government. The government‘s management is so poor and the cost of living is so crazy.

“Right now, I feel like I want to live away from my home country.”

Lahiru said carrying out basic tasks like "shopping for groceries" and filling his car with petrol was crippling his finances.

Last month, the prices of a number of essential items in the country increased dramatically after the central bank allowed the its rupee (LKR) to devalue.

The cost of basic items such as bread, rice and flour increased, in some cases, more than four-fold.

Tourists caught up in nationwide curfew

The government on Saturday evening imposed the nationwide curfew and blocked users from social media sites.

Laura Channer, a school counsellor in Dubai, last week arrived for a holiday in Sri Lanka.

She said it was evident that locals are desperate to see more tourists as it is a sure source of income for them.

“We have been to Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Udawalawe and we’re now Hikkaduwa,” she said.

“The major differences we have experienced in comparison to our previous Sri Lanka trip in December 2019 have been the regular long power cuts, increase in prices for basic goods, long queues for fuel and the desperation of the locals.

“They are in need of our tourism right now. They are polite, there’s no unrest where we have been but you can tell they are desperate for your business to make ends meet.”

The 29-year-old said hotels have been quiet but are "functioning relatively normally", apart from the power cuts.

“We have been staying in budget to mid-range places that haven’t always had the luxury of a generator, though.”

Caroline Rothwell, a resident in Dubai, is on a short break in Sri Lanka with her partner and has been staying in a small boutique hotel in Unawantuna, a town south of the capital.

“The power cuts out sometimes but we have got a SIM card so we do not need to use the Wi-Fi,” she said.

“There was one day that I couldn’t use the hairdryer but who cares when you are on holiday?

“Yesterday the curfew was announced. We were in Galle town at night and not many places were open as a result.

“The bigger places have generators, so you don’t notice [the blackouts] that much and it is incredible how the chefs work by candlelight and use gas to cook. They’re struggling but managing for now.”

Updated: April 03, 2022, 10:53 AM