NEGOMBO – An attack similar to what transpired in Mirissa on tourists by a group of drunk Sri Lankans could happen anywhere else in the country – with the next hotspot likely to be Negombo where anti-tourism incidents are going on unabated. Even as I write this story on the situation in Negombo what is [...]

Business Times

Sri Lanka is softly killing its tourism industry


NEGOMBO – An attack similar to what transpired in Mirissa on tourists by a group of drunk Sri Lankans could happen anywhere else in the country – with the next hotspot likely to be Negombo where anti-tourism incidents are going on unabated.

Hotels amidst unauthorised constructions

Even as I write this story on the situation in Negombo what is interesting to note is the lackadaisical approach of the authorities concerned in tackling these issues leaving not just the tourists defenseless but the country’s name to shame in the international arena.

Duty Officer A.M.S. Premaratne of the Tourist Police in Negombo, when contacted, seemed unaware of the problems in the area noting that they were not informed of these issues of illegal restaurants operating on the beaches but were aware of tourists’ bags getting stolen with cash.

But even in these instances the police have been unable to nab the offenders and it was surprising that this was not the first incident that had occurred in the area; in fact a trend has been observed of bag snatching.

It would not be long before the beaches of Negombo could be overtaken by powerful local area politicians that attempt to control the once famous tourist attraction and thereby reducing the fame of this location to be feared by holidaymakers in future.

Mirissa remains an unfortunate incident where tourists were physically and sexually attacked at a Surf Bar on April 8 that was subsequently closed on the orders of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).

In this instance the Tourism Ministry and SLTDA officials have taken immediate measures in the aftermath of the Mirissa attack; to apologise to tourists at large and respond in a timely manner by closing down the restaurant in question and inform the public the gravity of the situation and initiating action to possibly overcome any future issues of a similar nature.A ride to Negombo and talking to a few hoteliers, we found that the area is inundated with political henchmen making a fast buck ignoring the rules whereas law-abiding citizens like the main hoteliers on the coastal belt were left to look after their own security as authorities seem to turn a blind eye to harassment to tourists and hotels.

Negombo gets shock treatment

We met a shocking sight when we found that the Paradise Beach Hotel had fenced access to the beach with just a small opening to allow their guests to use – the reason being that three-wheelers and bikes park on the beach right next to this fence obstructing the hotel view of the sea and sand beyond its boundaries.

Young men walk right in front of the hotel from the beach with beer cans and bottles in their hands and sit around the coconut trees and are found boozing. They are visitors to the unauthorized or illegal construction of a restaurant that has laid open mattresses and tables on the beach clearly creating an unhealthy atmosphere where tourists would not like to venture into.

Long-haired men turn up there for a round of drinks starting from around 11 am and some of the empty beer cans are thrown around the beach, creating an unfavourable environment to visitors to the area.

“I’m only worried about the safety of my tourists to the hotel, which has been blocked by unwanted rowdies on the beach as tourists are worried to go to the beach when they are around,” Paradise Beach Hotel Managing Director E. Croos told the Business Times on Wednesday.

Tourists staying in homes are the frequent visitors to these restaurants that started out as just one in 2014 but have now increased with two more opening up on state property.

E. Croos

Tourists are said to have been inconvenienced on New Year’s Eve when the said restaurant had music blaring from 6 pm on December 31 until 3 pm on January 1. In fact, some visitors had opined to the owner of the Paradise Beach Hotel that these people at the restaurant should be high on drugs to be able to continuously dance all this time.

Mr. Croos explained that he had been subjected to death threats in the past by the owners of these restaurants and pointed out that despite making a number of complaints against them to the SLTDA, the Negombo Police, and the Coast Conservation Department no action had been initiated against these persons. He believes they are operating there with the concurrence or support of a powerful politician from the area.

The beach remains littered and the guests do not have a comfortable stay as they are harassed if they venture out in beach wear with these locals said to call out names or simply stare at the female guests to the hotel.

Previously there had been patrolling of the beach by the Tourist Police but today this is hardly evident and in fact, Hotel J Team Leader Vivian Vas speaking with the Business Times said that he had not seen them patrol the area in the past 10 days.

In fact, he noted that once they had tried to set up a fence in front of their hotel to secure the place for their visitors, they had been obstructed by the Coast Conservation Department which had filed action in the High Court against the hotel.

He noted that the transparent fence was set up to ensure there could be security for the holidaymakers staying at their hotel as guests were disturbed by locals who brought liquor bottles to have a drink right in front of the hotel and simply stand there and stare at the tourists and even cause harassment to the visitors.

This caused problems to the guests who have repeatedly complained to the hotel authorities who have now made it a point to ensure their staffers are situated there when tourists are sunbathing in the pool area.

Right of the coast

Meanwhile, Coast Conservation Department Director General Prabath Chandrakeerthi told the Business Times on Thursday that they had already issued demolishing orders for unauthorized constructions on the Negombo beach.

Moreover, he noted that in this respect they had informed the relevant police stations and the owners of the structures as well.

However, it was pointed out that some of these owners had contacted the Coast Conservation Department and stated that theirs were only seasonal structures and were temporarily set up.

But authorities noted that this could not be accepted as these owners initially would state that they would be there temporarily but later set up these structures on a permanent basis.

The department had even in the past being subjected to a lot of pressures by local area politicians when they would implement the demolition of these unauthorized structures like in Tangalle in the past.

Moreover, even after the Mirissa incident Minister Faizer Mustapha has been reportedly making calls to the relevant authorities asking them to refrain from demolishing the unauthorized constructions in line with government plans to assist small entrepreneurs.

People with bottles. Pix by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

Tourism Development Minister John Amaratunga said at a media briefing that the authorities should be allowed to carry out their work unhindered and though he was not aware of Minister Mustapha’s claims he believed such allegations could result in the Sri Lanka being branded as an unsafe destination.

When asked about the situation in Negombo, he affirmed that there could be issues there as well similar to the situation in Mirissa.

He noted that these issues could arise to the inaction of the police and law enforcement authorities and added that these persons could have been acting under pressure from local area politicians.

The minister also pointed out that there were drug lords operating in the Negombo area and that this was a cause for concern as even recently there had been reports of tourists being subjected to harassment.

The Coast Conservation Department is said to carry out demolitions and evictions of illegal structures in Mirissa on May 1 and in Negombo on May 8.

Touts, Beach boys – the nuisance and the menace

Touts, beach boys and the like have become part and parcel of the tourism business and since the 1970s the industry has been trying to engage them and contain the situation in order to make the country a tourist friendly state.

But today the situation has gone out of hand, as the industry points out the politicians continue to influence these people and as a result no action is taken against them.

Beach boys and touts are said to be connected to some politician or the other and since those in the different political parties do not want to lose their electoral base and voters they continue to assist such unscrupulous activities despite its negative impact on the Sri Lankan tourism industry.

While the incidence of beach boys operating in Wadduwa and Kalutara is limited, the situation in tourist hotspots like Beruwala to Bentota and Hikkaduwa, Weligama and Mirissa has become rampant.

In the cultural triangle one tour operator pointed out that despite repeated complaints made to the authorities they found touts inside the Sigiriya rock and they would attempt to try and help the tourists trying to go up and down the steps and later ask for about Rs.10,000.

It was noted that even the tour guides were found to be helpless as they are unable to manage such situations when they had to take about 30-40 visitors on tour to these locations.

The pristine beaches of the East coast were so far untouched as some operators point out the situation was in its infancy stages and that the area was unlikely to have thugs while most of the locals were law abiding people.

In Jaffna too such incidents have not occurred since it was not yet a place frequented by holidaymakers but on the other hand Colombo has found a nuisance among three-wheeler taxis that continue to harass tourists by charging them exorbitant rates.

Aitken Spence Travel Managing Director Nalin Jayasundere said, overall it has become a problem and this situation mainly occurs in countries like India and Sri Lanka but states like Dubai and Singapore did not have these issues since law and order is observed there and which is the reason why those destinations are growing.

He pointed out that the cultural triangle too may have these problems but it was mainly connected to people trying to sell stuff to tourists visiting the attractions.

But the situation on the beaches is different since tourists would be staying there for longer periods as a result of which they would be wanting to enjoy the night life as well, he said.

However, he commended the government’s move to take corrective action in relation to the situation in Mirissa.

Traveller’s talk

Visitors to the island have expressed concerns in visiting the destination again. In fact a couple Keith and Maureen Nessling of Kent, England (repeat travellers for the past five years) who stayed at the Paradise Beach Hotel in Negombo had commented on the police inaction concerning the beach bar that was too loud.

“The beach bar at the bottom of Paradise has always been very noisy but this year the noise has been unbearable. It has been ‘Boom Boom Boom’ all day and all through the night at times. The Police are called but no action taken. The people in the bar are very drunk and loud and have no regard for guests staying at Paradise,” the couple had complained in a letter to the hotel.

Another tourist couple Robert and Jacqueline Trout who stayed at the hotel to herald in the New Year noted that “after the fiasco of this Christmas and New Year’s Day with the noise from the Port Bar and the drugs going on it puts our life in fear of ever returning. Perhaps if a solution to the situation could be resolved it may throw a different light on our next visit to your beautiful island.”

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