COLOMBO Feb 15 Tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka in January crept up a better-than-expected, 0.64 percent compared with a year earlier, given an esclalation in violence on the island.
January arrivals edged up to 56,916, from 56,553 in the same month a year ago, the island state's tourist authority said.
"The visit of the spiritual leader of the Bohra community, attracted over 8,000 devotees in January," said Renton de Alwis, chairman of the state-run Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, referring to an ethnic Muslim group in Pakistan and India.
"Tourist confidence on Sri Lanka also helped us to maintain the arrivals in January."
Industry officials said the rise in January tourists arrivals was an achievement in light of heightened violence between the military and Tamil Tiger rebels after the government scraped a six-year truce in that month.
The violence claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly rebels, in January alone.
Although the country's popular tourist destinations are not in the zone of conflict, sporadic bomb blasts in and around the capital Colombo pose a major threat to the tourism industry, officials said.
This year, the tourism authority aims to have 600,000 foreign visitors to Sri Lanka and a 43 percent increase in foreign earnings from tourism to $550 million, de Alwis said.
Sri Lanka failed to achieve last year's target of 600,000 tourist arrivals due to the violence.
Tourist arrivals fell 11.7 percent to 494,008 in 2007 from a year earlier, as the renewed civil war deterred potential visitors, while earnings from tourism fell 6.1 percent to $385 million in last year, compared with $410 million in 2006.
Industry officials attributed the drop to a sharp fall in arrivals between March and June, after Tamil Tiger rebels bombed an air base next to the only international airport.
Some foreign embassies also advised their nationals to avoid war-affected areas.
Nearly 70,000 people have died since 1983 and around 6,000 people since late 2006 in the country's two-decade-old civil war.
Tourism is one of the key sources of foreign exchange in the $27 billion economy, the others being garments, foreign remittances and tea. (Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Ben Tan)