Sri Lanka is a country in turmoil. The recent attacks in churches and hotels in three of its cities, leaving at least 250 people dead, and hundreds injured, has left people in everyday life in complete shock, and promises to have repercussions for some time to come.
This country, which is still rebuilding itself after twenty six years of a terrible and self-destructive civil war, had managed to move on in the decade since, building a seemingly peaceful and religiously tolerant society in this ‘emerald jewel’ of the Indian Ocean. The country has the great advantages of having beautiful landscapes, an exceptional endemic wildlife and stunning variety. And it has an incredibly warm and friendly people.
The bomb blasts on Easter Sunday rocked the nation to its core. We were mercifully away from the Cities, in the mountains around Kandy, but they reverberated everywhere. It immediately led to political recriminations, which said more about the state of political dysfunction than the tragedies themselves, and exposed a current of divisions which lay perilously close to the surface.
Tourism is the fastest growing industry in Sri Lanka, and is vital to the success of the country as it rebuilds itself. The past decade has seen huge investment in its success. But these murderous attacks have ripped the heart out of that future, destabilised tolerance and peace, and it will impact people’s livelihoods for months and years to come.
Our family holiday to this tourism mecca was meant to be a lifetime adventure, a chance to experience somewhere completely different and to open our eyes to the wonders and diversity of the wider world. The trip ended up feeling like a metaphor for Sri Lankan tourism more generally. Our first week was peaceful, enjoying the beauty, warmth and friendliness (however touristic and superficial) of the country; we relaxed into the pace of life and celebrated the cultural differences. It was full of promise and full of elephants, tea-picking, palm trees, rocks, temples and exotic fruit.
After the terrorist attacks on the Sunday morning, however, our second week was fraught, anxious and fearful, as we worried about keeping our family safe from harm, honouring the curfew, avoiding public places, unsure of everything and everyone and wondering whether and when we could leave. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country, we were just there at the wrong time. Understandably, before we left, news came in everyday of more and more tourists cancelling upcoming trips.
I am so sad for the awful consequences of the bombings. I am so sad for those people who lost friends and family. And I am so sad for the future prospects for the continued development of this beautiful island state. These attacks could, in theory, have happened anywhere, and were largely it seems the doing of a single ‘radicalised’ family. But in Sri Lanka they have certainly caused huge damage to an already fragile people and economy.
Sri Lanka remains a beautiful and remarkable island, and a wonderful place to visit. If it is to recover, it needs people to see beyond this latest set of atrocities, and to keep visiting. For everyone’s sake, I hope tourists do still seek it out, and that it can bounce back quickly. Otherwise its instability is likely to only grow further.