Sri Lanka terror attacks risk turning tourism revival to ashes after a decade of peace

Emma Boyle
The spectre of terrorism and negative headlines threatens to turn Sri Lanka's tourist revival to ashes a decade after the end of civil war - AFP

Waking up to the news of bomb attacks in Colombo has come as a horrific surprise. Bombs and bloodshed are not new to Sri Lanka – next month marks a decade since the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil conflict – though an attack of this scale upon Christians at Easter during an extended time of peace and prosperity feels out of character, and has shocked the nation.

Until today, the mood in Sri Lanka has been positive and upbeat. In the last ten years, the lives of many Sri Lankans have improved and the tourism industry in particular has blossomed. Colombo, once a grim city of roadblocks and security cordons, is now open for business: coffee shops and health food cafes; yoga studios and art galleries; chic boutiques and shopping malls.

All of these things rely on the clientele that stay in international hotel chains such as the Shangri-La - which was one of those targeted by the Easter bombers - and have raised the capital’s profile and made this a highly liveable city.

Weekend brunches at the capital’s high-end hotels are well-patronised by families, expats and tourists, especially during special occasions such as Christmas and Easter. The numerous high-end residential and commercial high-rises currently being constructed across Colombo – some of which have almost sold out prior to completion – are a testament to the capital’s growing prosperity.

The picture is similar across Sri Lanka. Over the last decade, Sri Lanka has worked hard to entice tourists back and ensure them that this is a safe, welcoming and peaceful country to visit. And it has been successful.

Tourist arrivals have seen significant growth year-on-year and the construction of new tourism infrastructure to cope with this demand continues apace. Sri Lanka now receives visitors year-round thanks to the establishment of key eastern regions in the former conflict zone, such as the beach-rich Passikudah, with some visitors staying on, putting down roots and contributing to a growing expat community.

Thanks to its incredible diversity – eight world heritage sites, ancient cities, colonial architecture, misty highlands, tea plantations, pristine beaches, nature reserves home to leopards, elephants and bears, and an ocean harbouring blue whales and dolphins - Sri Lanka also remains at the top of many annual must-visit lists. This year Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka as its ‘number one country’ to visit in 2019.

Without knowing the motive behind the attacks, it is still too early to say how these events in and around Colombo, and in Batticaloa, will affect Sri Lanka’s emerging tourism industry. The mood is still sombre, and those working within tourism are feeling nervous given that three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted. However, business is determined to continue as usual and the hope is that visitors will not cancel their existing plans, and continue to explore and enjoy the island’s unaffected regions.

Picture shows survivor Ben Nicholson (right) with the other members of his family who were killed in one of the eight bomb attacks that took place in Sri Lanka today, Easter Sunday, 21st April, 2019. Also pictured are his son Alex, wife Anita and as yet unnamed daughter. Credit: Facebook

Ordinary Sri Lankans do not wish to see senseless violence return to their island, and are showing solidarity in the face of today’s events. Even during the civil war, religion did not always divide (Tamils are Hindus or Catholics) and many Sri Lankans looked out for neighbours and friends irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Despite the ethnic flare-ups that make news headlines, many Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Tamils share friendship circles and welcome foreign visitors with open arms. For many of those visiting Sri Lanka, it is the warmth and kindness of the Sri Lankan people that they remember the most.