It takes a hardy tourist to visit Sri Lanka amid protests and power cuts

By Mark Footer

Is Sri Lanka the canary in the coal mine or the elephant in the room?

The erstwhile tourist magnet of 22 million people, off India’s southern tip, is struggling through its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain, in 1948.

Sri Lanka “has a long history of rising foreign obligations, driven partly by incessant government deficits, and this has been worsened by a loss of tourism revenue in the pandemic and, this year, by surging fuel costs”, explains Reuters. “The resulting severe shortage of foreign exchange has stalled imports, including essentials such as fuel and medicines, and the country is also facing an impending food crisis.”

And it’s not just the people who are going hungry. “Sri Lanka’s Department of Zoology has informed the Wildlife Ministry that it has run out of funds to provide daily food to animals in zoos amid the ongoing economic crisis,” reports Xinhua, noting that the country’s Dehiwala Zoological Garden is one of the oldest in Asia.

As privations bite, Sri Lankan citizens are becoming increasingly restless, taking out their anger on the politicians they see as having mismanaged the economy. Violence has been reported, but largely peaceful protests centre on what’s been christened GotaGoGama village, an area adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face, in one of the busiest business hubs of the capital, Colombo. The name essentially means, ‘President [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] Go Home’.

With music, waving flags and a tented library, medical centre and shops, the scene should be familiar to those who remember Hong Kong’s Occupy Central encampments in 2014. At least one ‘glass-half-full’ travel website is touting GotaGoGama as Sri Lanka’s latest tourist attraction.

Some analysts see Sri Lanka as the first of several indebted countries (is there any other kind?) – in Asia and elsewhere – that will have to deal with such turmoil as the stresses of war further depress economies and complicate geopolitical relationships already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, it isn’t difficult to see Sri Lanka’s woes as an indictment of the unsustainable way the world consumes in the era of climate breakdown. The fact the Indian subcontinent has suffered from what Scientific American magazine calls “astonishing heat” this year is ominous. Perhaps Sri Lanka is both a canary and an elephant.

Contacts in Sri Lanka suggest now isn’t the time to visit for a holiday, especially for families and elderly travellers. Nevertheless, according to a recent article in India’s The Hindu newspaper, “Sri Lanka continues to welcome tourists, as hotels and restaurants innovate to stay open.”

The newspaper visits Colombo’s Ministry of Crab, one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, where, undeterred by a power cut, “diners continue to tuck into Sri Lanka’s famously sweet mud crabs, slathered in garlic and butter”. By candlelight.

“As supplies of imported produce run out, restaurants are being forced to rethink menus, but fortunately for [Ministry of Crab], their focus is on freshly caught, local crabs. They have, however, like most other businesses, been forced to raise prices to compensate for rising costs. They also recently introduced a dollar menu, as the value of the Sri Lankan Rupee now fluctuates from day to day,” The Hindu reports.

The newspaper also visits the five-star Taj Samudra hotel, which has views of the Laccadive Sea as well as the vibrant GotaGoGama village. After a post-lockdown rebound in guest numbers, the Taj is now running at about 20% occupancy.

Grasping at straws, general manager Pankaj Sampat points out that international exchange rates being what they are, a trip to Sri Lanka is now much more affordable than it was even just a few months ago – assuming you can pay your way in rupees, of course. At the time of writing, HK$1 will buy you more than 45 Sri Lankan rupees. On March 1, that same Hong Kong dollar would have acquired just 25 rupees.

The three pieces of advice The Hindu offers for tourists who may wish to brave a trip to Sri Lanka are these: limit your movement by vehicle as much as possible because fuel is not only expensive, it’s also difficult to find; luxury hotels are more likely to be able to keep the lights and air conditioners on than resorts and homestays, which “swelter through the power cuts which are usually three to four hours, but have been known to go up to 13 hours”; and locals remain hospitable and welcoming of the business tourists bring, so tip generously.

Here’s to a speedy recovery, Sri Lanka, and to taking some of that GotaGoGama pluck onto the cricket pitch while the Aussies are touring.





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