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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 13:35 GMT
Sri Lanka's tourism beset by problems

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, southern Sri Lanka

Dilen's hotel
Dilen's hotel has been rebuilt but there are no visitors

The stillness of a spring afternoon in southern Sri Lanka is broken by the sound of workmen hammering as they rebuild a beachfront hotel.

Three months ago, I met Nath Gunawardene of the Dilen's hotel in the country's southern coast standing amid the debris of his property.

Now five rooms out of 15 in his budget hotel have been rebuilt, the lobby has been refurbished and painted and new furniture has been bought for the tiny reception.

But there is no one to occupy the rooms.

"We've had a few aid workers and a couple of local businessmen staying with us for a night or two," says hotel manager Jayanta Gamage.

"But no foreign tourists."

Graphic showing tourist arrivals in Tsunami-hit countries

It's a scene that is repeated across Sri Lanka.

Its famous beach resorts, usually filled with upmarket clients from the United States, Britain and Germany, are running at 20% of their capacity.

"Business has just not picked up since the tsunami," says Sanjiva Gautamdasa, general manager of the Lighthouse hotel and spa in the southern town of Galle.

Many hotel owners, already badly hit by tsunami damage and rebuilding costs, have been forced to reduce prices by 30% to 40%.

"But even that has not helped," adds Mr Gamage of the Dilen's hotel.

Controversial rule

But the hotel owners are also up in arms over a new rule passed by the Sri Lankan government to create a buffer zone within 100 metres of the shoreline.

In effect, no new construction is allowed within this limit. While existing legal properties will be allowed to stay, it is not allowed to build anything new or repair damaged buildings falling in the zone.

While environmentalists have welcomed the move, others are upset.

"Do you think tourists would want to stay with us if we are far away from the beach," asks Sanath Liyanage, who owns a small hotel on Unawatuna beach in the south.

"It's a ridiculous decision," he says.

"The highway runs close to the coast along most of this region and it would be unacceptable to relocate beyond that."

Pirgit and Rosy, visiting from Germany, agree.

"Why would you come here if you can't stay near the beach," says Pirgit.

The decision is seen as hurting small hotel and restaurant owners more than it does the big operators who can benefit from having a clear stretch of land in front of their property right up to the water's edge.

No money

The rule has also upset the plans of many businesses which were looking for financial assistance to get back on their feet.

Why are they targeting small businesses like mine?
Sumit Wijesena
Sumit Wijesena runs the Unawatuna diving school and estimates that he lost close to $4m in damages caused by the tsunami.

But, when he approached local banks for a loan, he was turned away because his business was located within the buffer zone.

"I have to stay by the water, what do I do?" he says.

"Why are they targeting small businesses like mine? The government itself has built structures close to the sea.

"I'd like to see them pull those down."

Eco-tourism

But some Sri Lankan tour operators and businesses believe that the tsunami has given the island an opportunity to promote a different brand of tourism.

Wildlife photographer Gehan de Silva Wijayeratne says several rare species of birds and animals can be spotted in many of the country's natural parks.

"Red-headed Bunting, Black-headed Bunting - two migrant species of birds, not recorded before in Sri Lanka have been observed at Uda Walawe National Park," which lies close to the south coast, he says.

Mr de Silva Wijeyeratne, who is also CEO of Jetwing Eco holidays, is among a small tribe of tour operators keen to draw tourists away from the country's famed beaches and to its nature trails and natural parks.

But above all, he would like the visitors back and believes they could help the country's post-tsunami recovery.

"Many people live directly or indirectly in the coastal areas in Sri Lanka by the tourism dollar, so the best way one could help, is to continue bringing tourists and not cancelling bookings that have already been made."


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