Arugam Bay: It’s back to dancing on the waves
By Sanath Weerasuriya, Pix by Nilan Maligaspe

The tsunami that hit the coast of Sri Lanka in December 2004 left Arugam Bay completely flattened. Most of the hotels, which provide accomodation for the die-hard surfers were destroyed.

Almost four years later, apart from the physical scars, Arugam Bay, is almost back to normal. The tourists are returning, surfers are dancing on the waves, almost all the hotels, guest houses and restaurants appear to have re-opened but no development appears to have taken place in the rebuilding. The lifestyle is the same as it was before the tsunami.

After the liberation of the East from the grip of LTTE recently, Arugam Bay and Panama have taken centre stage in the East Coast tourism development drive and been identified as the areas with the most potential in the Ampara District to project sustainable community development tourism.

The Arugam Bay Tourism Association (ABTA) is working actively once again to woo tourists to the area.
According to tourism officials, infrastructure development is the need of the day as post-tsunami reconstruction has not matched the expectations of modern day tourism.

The new Arugam Bay Bridge constructed to replace the old, original landmark box girder linking Arugam Bay with Pottuvil town seems the only significant sign of development. Most of the popular guest houses and motels, Ranga’s Beach Hut, Paradise, Tri Star, Stardust, Tsunami Hotel, Rockview Beach Side Hotel, Hilton Beach Hotel operate on the same scale as before.

“It is sad to see Arugam Bay still standing behind the line of poverty and yet to get a glimpse of the modern tourism facilities like in other areas in the country. Though the post tsunami aid and relief funds have reached the East, none of them benefited the community in Arugam Bay. We are still the same,” said Mohomad Fizer, President of the Arugam Bay Community Eco-Guide Association (CEGA).

Reaching the east coast, especially Arugam Bay is not easy. It is a nearly 10 to 12 hour drive from Colombo with few stops. The main entry point of the Province via Siyambalanduwa usually closes at 7.00 p.m. and visitors have to be at the point before dark.

The new Arugam Bay bridge.

The 45 km stretch of golden beach from Pottuvil to Okanda is the base for future development in Sri Lanka. It has great surfing, wildlife sanctuaries, heritage sites, places of religiously importance as well as opportunities for adventure and nature holidays with camping facilities.

It is indeed a destination on its own and should be developed as the top attraction in this region, reiterates S. Harshana, one of the locals who is a keen promoter of sustainable community based tourism. Being a villager in Panama, Harshana has many ideas and plans, such as ‘home stay’ tourism, which is a fast-developing trend in the rest of Asia.

“To learn about the culture you should live with the culture. This is the basis of ‘home stay tourism’. This kind of travellers are educated and intellectual. They come here in search of culture and lifestyle. We have started this type of small projects in Panama Village but they really need a push from the top,” he said.

Getting the community involved

The team behind the project

Major players of sustainable community-based eco tourism projects met in Arugam Bay last month and formed a cooperative society to involve local community organizations to share economic benefits from the development of tourism and to promote respect and understanding between the host (local communities) and the guest.

The Community Eco-Guide Association (CEGA) based in Arugam Bay is promoting sustainable community based tourism. A collaboration between local community based organizations (CBOs), cooperatives and associations, the association made up of 13 Eco-Guide Members was formed during a community-based ecotourism project implemented by the Institute for International Economic Cooperation (ICEI) in partnership with Sewalanka Foundation and funded by Italian Cooperation and Regional Lombardia.

A professional guide training course has been conducted and 13 guides were officially licensed as Area Guides by Sri Lanka Tourism, specializing in ecotourism and community-based tourism.

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