COLOMBO, April 16 (Reuters) - The number of tourists arriving in Sri Lanka in March rose 8.6 percent from a year earlier thanks to a campaign to attract visitors from Iran and relative calm in the country’s civil war, officials said on Wednesday.
Arrivals edged up to 38,049 from 35,031 a year before, the island’s state tourist authority said. Arrivals in the January-March period rose to 135,516 from 134,635 a year earlier, a marginal increase of 0.7 percent.
After a 5.8 percent drop in visitors in February from a year before, the industry had been braced for further weakness because of an upsurge of violence this year in the 25-year civil war between the state and separatist Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
However, Renton de Alwis, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, said: "It was a relatively quite month and also the promotions and the efforts that were taken all went well."
A promotional campaign in Iran resulted in nine charter flights from that country in March carrying about 1,300 visitors.
Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority said in a statement that arrivals from the Middle East rose 80.6 percent in the January to March period compared with a year earlier. In March alone arrivals were almost four times higher than a year before.
The number of visitors from Russia in January-March was 58.3 percent higher than a year earlier. French arrivals jumped 93.5 percent and those from Britain 11.9 percent.
Industry officials said the rise in March arrivals was an achievement given the heightened violence between the military and Tamil Tigers after the government scrapped a six-year truce in January.
The violence has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people, mostly rebels, since January, according to military figures.
Although the popular tourist destinations are not in the conflict zone, sporadic bomb blasts in and around the capital, Colombo, are a threat to the tourist industry, officials said.
This year the tourist authority is aiming for 600,000 foreign visitors and a 43 percent increase in foreign earnings from tourism to $550 million, officials said.
Tourist arrivals fell 11.7 percent to 494,008 in 2007, with the renewed violence blamed for the failure to reach a target of 600,000. Earnings from tourism fell 6.1 percent to $385 million.
The civil war has caused nearly 70,000 deaths since 1983 and around 9,000 since late 2006.
Tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign exchange, along with garments, remittances and tea. (Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Alan Raybould)