COLOMBO (Reuters) - The world financial crisis will cut 2009 tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka to their lowest level in seven years, potentially stripping gains expected as a 25-year war nears an end, tourism officials said on Friday.
Tourism is the Indian Ocean island nation’s fourth-biggest source of foreign exchange after garments, remittances, and tea, and is an industry that has stayed alive during a war with Tamil Tiger separatists that started in 1983.
Despite the conflict and occasional bombings in the capital Colombo, many visitors still flock to Sri Lanka’s white-sand beaches, visit its ancient cities, or make pilgrimages to sites sacred primarily to Buddhists and Hindus.
But even with the military attacking the Tigers’ last bases and victory looking close, the industry is already struggling to find cash for new investments and losing its best workers to better-paying markets. This year looks worse.
“Even for 2009, we expect a 10 percent fall due to the world economic crisis,” said S. Kalaiselvam, director general at the state-run Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority told Reuters.
That forecast means the number of arrivals will be around 394,000, the lowest level since 2002 -- when the numbers were hit by a then-raging war.
A truce that year started to bring in more visitors, pushing the total over a half million a year from 2003-2007, and then renewed hostilities depressed them again.
On Thursday, the tourism board blamed war and recession for an 11.2 percent year-on-year fall in arrivals to 438,475 visitors, the lowest since 2002 and a fourth straight fall.
Central bank data showed tourism brought the island $304 million in revenue in the first 11 months of the year, 10 percent less than same period last year.
“We are concerned on the fall,” said Sirilal Miththapala, president of the Sri Lanka Hoteliers’ Association. “Even if the war stops, things might improve locally, but foreigners will not come to Sri Lanka as they are hit hard by the global crisis.”
The country in 2008 got 43 percent of its visitors from western Europe and North America, and Miththpala said the financial crisis will keep more of them home in 2009. They spend more per person than any other group of travellers, he said.
Foreign visitors have been shying away from the island since the government threw out a six-year-old truce a year ago and unleashed an offensive to wipe out the Tamil Tigers.
Although most popular tourist destinations are far from the war, sporadic bomb attacks around Colombo have dampened arrivals.
And many of the industry’s workers have left for more lucrative jobs in India or the neighbouring Maldives, which form part of a classic tourist circuit on which Sri Lanka was an essential stop, tourism operators say.
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