Prospective visitors to Sri Lanka may be perturbed by recent revelations that the country’s hotels are being asked to provide police with the passport numbers and visa details of foreign guests.
The move might sound Orwellian, but should be seen as a – perhaps overcautious – response to crimes targeting travellers. Khuram Shaikh, a British national, was fatally attacked at the resort of Tangalle on Christmas Day in 2011, while two European tourists were beaten up in central Sri Lanka last month. It also illustrates just how important the Sri Lankan government regards the continued success of its burgeoning tourism industry.
I’m currently in the country as part of a press trip organised by British Airways. Following a 15-year hiatus, the carrier resumed services to Colombo this week, emboldened by the cessation of hostilities and a subsequent rise in overseas visitors – a million tourists came here in 2012, more than double the number that arrived in the final year of the civil war.
The journalists with me have never seen members of a country’s travel industry so enthused by their arrival. In beautiful but economically deprived Sri Lanka peace has provided a major opportunity for growth, and the return of BA has been front-page news. To our surprise, photographers and TV crews have followed us around the country, and one local guide, who went to the airport to welcome the inaugural BA flight, told me he wept when the plane touched down.
Our own run-in with the police happened moments after our arrival. We reached Colombo on a bank holiday, but our tour bus was still provided with a police escort to smooth our path from the airport to our hotel. The unexpected gesture was, of course, completely unwarranted and in any case unnecessary (the roads were practically deserted), but the significance of these returning markets is perhaps difficult for visitors from Britain to fully appreciate.
The tourism drive hasn’t come without controversy. Some human rights groups have criticised what they describe as “tasteless war tourism”, including holiday accommodation built on the site of Sri Lanka’s “killing fields”.
The government has also come under fire for allegedly bulldozing independent guesthouses to make way for new holiday resorts, and for pressing ahead with “morally dubious” tourism projects in Hambantota and Kalpitiya, on the south and north-west coasts.
In the three days we’ve been here we’ve found locals hospitable, exceptionally friendly and laidback – the country appears safe and I’ve felt comfortable and sincerely welcomed at all of the attractions I’ve visited.
While I’m unsure that providing tourists’ passport and visa details to police will make any significant difference to security, it has been plain to see from our brief stay here that the authorities are doing all they can to make the country more attractive to foreigners.
But given how fledgling the country’s tourism industry is, and the pressure it seems to be placing itself under to get everything right, it is not guaranteed to be a smooth ride.
- BA operates three flights a week from Heathrow to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, via the Maldives. See ba.com .