Sri Lankans hope change of government can save flagging tourism industry

Fuel supply shortages likely to continue but political stability could save visitor season

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Sri Lankans are desperate for a promised transfer of power after the country's president and prime minister vowed to resign amid huge protests sparked by months of economic turmoil.

At the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters stormed the official residences of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with many blaming them for the mismanagement that has led to shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

The demonstrators have vowed to continue occupying the residences until both men have stepped down.

Remarkable pictures beamed across the world showed protesters jumping into the president's swimming pool, lounging on sofas and holding their own mock Cabinet meetings.

Mr Rajapaksa is to formally resign on Wednesday, with Mr Wickremesinghe also promising to quit following chaotic scenes in which his private residence was set on fire.

Sri Lankans hope their departure — and that of the rest of the current cabinet — will unify the crisis-hit nation and help to salvage its ailing tourism sector.

A country on edge

Psychology lecturer Vishmi Ranatunga, 32, said she was among the vast crowds who took part in the demonstrations on Saturday.

“I feel like we're witnessing a revolution taking place,” she told The National by phone.

It was announced that the president and prime minister will resign on the 13th, people are sceptical about whether they will stick to their word
Vishmi Ranatunga, university lecturer

“I was there in the crowd on Lotus Road which adjoins the presidential secretariat.

“It was a surreal experience to see that many people turn up to demand the president step down.”

She also said there was an air of scepticism among her fellow Sri Lankans at the announcement that both the president and prime minister would step down from power.

Anxious wait for July 13 decision-day

“Although it was announced that the president and prime minister will resign on the 13th, people are sceptical about whether they will stick to their word,” Ms Ranatunga said.

“Most people are anxious from the lack of clarity with what's going on politically.”

A Sri Lankan living in Dubai said he hopes the protests taking place in his home country bring about permanent change.

Beverney Shane, 31, who works for an advertising agency in the emirate, said it was a proud moment to see people storm the president’s house.

"I am still sceptical he will leave power. I know he has offered his resignation but we are all waiting until July 13th to see if he actually does," he said.

“This is a dynasty that has been in charge of the country since around 2005 and God knows how much damage they have done to our economy in that time.”

He said the recent scenes — which have shocked many across the globe — would have come as little surprise to anyone who has been following events in Sri Lanka closely.

Anger boils over

“It’s something we’ve all seen coming for some time. If you look at how the country has suffered with the Easter Sunday attacks and then how it was affected by the pandemic,” he said.

“The decision to ban non-organic pesticides was the final straw for many people as it meant our exports were greatly reduced.”

The country brought the ban into place in April and Mr Shane said it has played a significant part in forcing Sri Lankans to take action against their government.

The other major factor, according to Mr Shane, was the cost of living increasing as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which has led to fuel shortages and price increases around the world.

“There are many Sri Lankans who are skipping meals because they can’t afford to eat; that is not sustainable,” he said.

“The queues at the petrol stations are insane. It’s not uncommon for people to have to queue up for two to three days just to get fuel.

“The cost of living has practically tripled in the last two months but salaries have stayed the same.”

He said that he feels a sense of helplessness at being so far away from his fellow Sri Lankans in such a difficult time.

New hope for vital tourism sector

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to resign on Wednesday after fleeing his official residence shortly before demonstrators stormed it. Photo: Bloomberg

Karen Banister, a British woman who owns a holiday villa in Bentota, on Sri Lanka's south-west coast, said the prospect of a transition of power has instilled some hope again.

She said tourism is the only option for many businesses to earn foreign currency.

“It is the protests appearing violent that has probably put people off travelling here,” she said.

“The protesters have protested peacefully. It was the government, police and army that caused the problem.

“It has reached a peak and the president [is expected] to resign on Wednesday. Sri Lankans are united with this result and so there is hope again.”

Although May and June are out of season for Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, Ms Banister said there are hardly any new bookings for her villa for the usual busy season, which starts in October and November.

“I have bookings from repeat guests who will come as long as the situation is stabilised,” she said.

“For anyone visiting, it is safe for tourists — who are always welcome in Sri Lanka — but at the moment it is not a good idea to tour around until the fuel problem improves.

“Staying in one place with short trips would feel like being in a private villa at a very good price, but I would say for now keep away from Colombo city, not for the danger but the mayhem.

“Soon, tourists will be able to come happily for their holidays again and, in return, help Sri Lanka rise up.”

Visitors can help revive flagging fortunes

Tour operators and hoteliers in Sri Lanka said foreign tourists should not be put off travelling to the country because they could help breathe new life into its failing economy.

Some tourist companies reported a healthy outlook for tour bookings in July and August. However, they said few people are booking ahead for trips later in the year.

Sinthujan Kananathan, founder of Digital Tourism, said his company reported a drop in visitors in May, but things have since picked up.

“We had our highest number of tourist bookings since Covid-19 in April, but from May 9, when problems in the country really took off, we had many people cancel bookings,” he said.

“However, that only lasted a few weeks and from the end of May until the end of June we had many clients book drivers and tours with us.

“Because of the summer holiday season in Europe, bookings look healthy again for July and August.

“Fuel availability has gone down [owing to shortages] but the government has issued a special token system for tourist drivers in the country.”

Mr Kananathan has to register his drivers with the tourism board to access the fuel tokens.

Sinthujan Kananathan, founder of Digital Tourism. Photo: Sinthujan Kananathan

After providing details of each tour and the expected mileage, the government then decides how much fuel can be given.

In the past two months, a typical daily tour with the company, which employs more than 100 drivers, has increased from $50 to $65 to cover the rising costs, he said.

Digital Tourism has 32 tours booked for July and 47 for August, which is similar to years gone by given that the summer is their quiet season.

“Because of the changing situation in the country we have to be flexible so we do offer a full refund if visitors cannot make it,” Mr Kananathan said.

“I have been advising clients to book flights as late as possible so they can monitor what is happening in the country before committing to anything, but we do require a 50 per cent down payment for tours in advance.”

Last week, the UK’s Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.

The announcement resulted in some UK airlines cancelling flights. However, scheduled flights from other countries including India, Germany and Austria are operating as usual.

Sri Lankan protests - in pictures

Updated: July 11, 2022, 1:32 PM