WITH over 200 dead and half a million displaced, Sri Lanka’s recent floods have wreaked havoc across the southwest of the country and has threatened to be the worst disaster since the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
While water levels have subsided, there are still risks of mud slides, dengue fever and crocodile attacks as well as fears for crops and tea plantations. It’s low season now but visitors start to return during the European summer holidays in July.
Despite assurances from the tourism ministry that it is perfectly safe to travel to the country, some governments such as the UK and Canada initially issued strong warnings.
With areas like Ratnapura and Nuwara Eliya affected as well as the main road from Colombo to the busy tourist beaches to the South, what impact could this disaster have on an economy tied strongly to steeply increasing tourism targets?
Sri Lanka is hoping for 2.5 million tourist arrivals this year; that’s up half a million on 2016. With such ambitious aims it is vital that potential visitors not be put off by the perceived catastrophe of the recent floods and landslides.
Firstly, being named Asia’s Leading Destination in the 2017 World Travel Awards this month couldn’t hurt the beleaguered nation.
In fact, the areas most affected are in the interior of the country well away from the bustling coastline but this perhaps needs to be communicated strongly at an international level. There has been little reporting of the floods beyond the Sri Lankan media since they were at their zenith in late May.
On a practical level, it helps to know that despite the hangover of the floods being felt across southwest Sri Lanka, the areas most visited in the next few months are in the East which, on the other hand, is experiencing a drought. Major roads, railways and hotels are all operating business as usual.
Dengue fever is on the rise and levels peaked in the first few days after the flood. Visitors should take precautions not to get bitten by daylight stalking mosquitos but, again, areas worst affected are not traditional holiday enclaves.
For those taking a longer view, this disaster has highlighted the need for Sri Lanka to address wider issues that could impinge on its tourism targets for years to come.
Accusations that the severity of the floods was exacerbated by poor planning of the massive Southern Expressway came to light last week with one source suggesting that the road project, lacking input from local experts, acted as a dam, allowing floodwater to pool in central regions, rather than flowing to the coast.
Soil erosion from deforestation and the blocking of drains by plastic waste has also been flagged as a long term problem.
In the shorter term, the state is still far from recovery and the UN has just launched an appeal for more funds for those worst hit. One of the most important ways to help, though, is to keep visiting this magnificent country which now, more than ever, needs the tourist dollar to flourish.