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Protests in Sri Lanka sink tourism: “They say this is paradise, but we are in hell” | International

Dinesh is a scarecrow. The truth is that it only scares the crows, which in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, monopolize the sky, the earth and, if nobody prevents it, the tables of the guests at Blu Sunset, a club with a swimming pool that at night hosts parties and concerts. With 35 years and three children, he was hired just two months ago so that the crows do not bother or peck at the plates. “I haven’t studied veterinary medicine, but I know they are very intelligent animals,” he says. Dinesh pretends that he shoots an invisible slingshot at a crow resting on a tree branch. The animal doesn’t even flinch.

An ethnic Tamil, Dinesh comes every week from Jaffna, in the north of the island, to protect anyone from the crows. To be honest, he has very little work. “I don’t know how long this will last me… Without fuel, without being able to go on excursions and with the protests, tourists don’t want to come,” laments the man, who plans to emigrate to the Middle East to work for anything, “as long as it’s not in the construction,” he says as he looks out over the spit of sea that separates Blu Sunset from Galle Force Park in Colombo, the epicenter of the popular uprising that has toppled the government in Sri Lanka.

After the end of the civil war, with the victory over the Tamil guerrillas in 2009, the country bet heavily on tourism. It was sold to the world as a paradise. Nature is not lacking, and neither is fauna, and from the air the island looks like an emerald, all covered in green. Eden is still there, but it no longer tempts travelers so strongly in a context of economic and political crisis. For locals, if it ever was, it no longer exists. “They say this is paradise, but now we are in hell. Until 2019 we had some stability, things were going well. But the politicians have failed us,” complains Rishadi, 36, one of the faithful who is still in the tents set up in front of the Indian Ocean against the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned last Thursday and remains on the run in Singapore.

The decline in tourism is due to many causes: the disastrous economic management of the Government, above all, but also the international context and a chain of more or less random events that have occurred over time and have prevented the island from raising its head. The terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday 2019 —with 269 dead in Colombo— curbed the euphoria: the number of visitors fell by 18%. The recovery was quick, but the covid swept everything away. Visitors are the third-largest source of foreign currency for the government, and that disappeared, as did the $4.4 billion from tourism in the last really good year, 2018. The lack of foreign currency constrained the ability of the government—which had just of approving a tax cut for the rich—to import products, especially energy, which is paid for in dollars.

“Before I had 20 students, now I have two”

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Fort Colombo, the capital’s central station, is still an anthill, but you no longer see the comings and goings of clueless backpackers looking for a train to the beaches (yes, paradisiacal ones) in the south of the country, to historic Kandy or to the imposing Galle, with colonial airs. With the shortage of fuel, getting around the island has been complicated: there are fewer buses and taxis and travel is more crowded; It can be difficult, depending on the places, to find a private vehicle with a full tank.

Getting to Kalpitiya, for example, was never easy. But now less. Seven years ago, Rubén Gómez founded the Margarita kitesurf school on that small peninsula in the northwest of the island. It is not an area especially exploited for the tourism sector – which before the pandemic represented 12% of GDP and employed more than 400,000 people – but he and his wife, who organizes yoga retreats, were doing quite well . “We grew and grew… Until the attacks. There he stopped. And when we were taking off again, the covid came ”. Rubén did not reopen the school until December 2021 and, once again, “everything seemed to be going smoothly”. Studies indicate the same thing: the elimination of quarantines for vaccinated people, shortly before that date, triggered reservations. In particular, and this is almost unlucky because of what would happen later, Russians and Ukrainians, who at the beginning of 2022 represented 25% of travelers.

But once again, everything went wrong. News about the country’s crisis (fuel, food and medicine shortages) began to spread and took the form of protest starting in April, when the country declared bankruptcy. “They began to cancel reservations. Especially the Germans, who want everything for sure.” The unitary protest and the assault on the presidential palace on July 9, the coup that led the president to flee, has increased cancellations because few want to risk going in a climate of instability. “In January I had about 20 or 30 students on the beach. Today I have two.” The same feeling of sadness, of paradise lost, is seen in the zones. Rubén strives to show that the area is quiet, that you can go and enjoy yourself… “It’s no use if the governments recommend not to come.”

This is the case of Spain. In May, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended “not traveling” to the country due to “shortages and shortages of basic products.” In July, he added that “personal security is very unstable.” Those recommendations did not stop an extended family from Murcia who arrived in Sri Lanka before the assault on the palace and who have spent two phenomenal weeks touring the wonders of the island. “If it wasn’t for the guide and because my daughter wrote to me worried saying that there had been a coup d’état, we wouldn’t know anything,” Dolores smiles, happy because in Bentota, the beach destination that everyone would baptize as “paradise” (endless sand, endless ocean, endless palm trees), the hotel was almost empty: “We had the pool to ourselves!”

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