Calm before tourism storm as Sri Lankan coast awakens

Surfers like Jason, in his mid-20s, with bleached dreadlocks and a full beard, his chest tattooed. The Australian doesn't need long to consider what has changed in the half-moon bay since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in May 2009.

"Now a lot more girls are coming here," he says, but without even the hint of a smile.
Now, many more tourists are expected to follow them. There is a lot of money on the line and this worries Jason and the others. After nearly 40 years of civil war, the palm tree-lined beaches ranging from Arugam Bay in the south to Nilaveli in the north are waking up from a lengthy slumber.

Arugam Bay remains an idyllic destination for the backpacker crowd. At one end of the bay, surfers paddle out to look for the next perfect wave, while at the other end, water buffaloes are grazing in the grass. But now, there's a gold-rush fever taking over the place.

"Many people now want to get their foot in the door of the gold mine," says Merete Scheller, who together with her husband bought a piece of land and built a hotel on it - 28 years ago.

Mohamed Raheem is now afraid that the mistakes made elsewhere, in other former natural paradises, will be repeated in Arugam Bay. "They have shown us the plans for huge blocks of hotels made of concrete," says the president of the Arugam Bay Tourist Association. "But you can already find this in other places."

A rough idea of what the government is thinking is provided in the "Eastern Province Development Action Plan" which the Tourism Ministry has published. Large-sized hotels, new airports and better roads are planned to give a boost to tourism. One of the major projects is at Passekudah, now a bumpy, six-hour bus ride north of Arugam Bay.

A sign lists the attractions of the "National Holiday Resort" which one day is to rise up from the swampy land: top-ranking hotels, restaurants, an aquarium, a shopping bazaar, a sports complex, and an open air theatre are foreseen.

Everything is to be completed in one and a half years, says a vendor in his lemonade stand located behind the beach. Some 1,500 tourists are to be provided international-level accommodation in 14 hotels.

Up till now, it is mainly only domestic tourists who are splashing about in the shallow waters. The bay's surrounding land gently meets the sea here, making the shallow waters ideal for guests from Colombo or Kandy, many of whom do not know how to swim.

Vahid is one such visitor who together with his family has already come here several times since the war ended. They only visit for the weekend.

"From Kandy, it is only seven hours," he said, giving a travel time which by Sri Lankan standards is just a short hop. The people come in order to finally see the eastern part of the country which they had not dared to travel into for more than 30 years.

It's certainly not due to a lack of hospitality that so far not as many tourists as had been expected have yet to visit the kilometres-long beaches of Passekudah and Kalkudah. But what's on offer is not yet enough.

There is a lack of the fundamental things like electricity and water supplies, complains Shiva Satkunam, the manager of a bungalow-style hotel. "The people expect good roads, comfortable buses and hotels, standards like what they have back home."

Work is going forward at the "Simla Inn" not far away. "My daughter is just now building six new rooms," says 67-year-old Miss Victoria, pointing to a courtyard where chickens are pecking away at the ground.

For the past 32 years the Tamil family have run a small hotel here and did not even close down when rebels attacked the local police station in 1990. But when the late 2004 tsunami swept away her house and her husband, she started all over again, with two guest rooms.

Miss Victoria isn't afraid of the new competition. "Only the rich people go to the new hotels. Normal people come to me," she says. "They (other hotels) have marble and fine butlers, but that is only for show. Their food isn't any good."

And good food is very important to her, she says, leading a visitor through a small vegetable garden. "Here is where I grow aubergines, lentils and sweet potatoes," Miss Victoria says, ingredients from which she cooks curries.

On Pigeon Island women in colourful saris stand gossiping with each other. It's a weekend and shuttle boats are bringing many local visitors to the island paradise. After just a few thrusts of their flippers, snorkellers quickly reach the coral gardens and can watch the sharks swim in elegant circles in the reefs.

For those who want to go yet deeper, the first diving schools have opened up on the beaches of Uppuveli and Liaveli.

"So far, Sri Lanka is not known as a place for a scuba diving vacation," diving instructor Jayantha admits. But the customers will be coming, of that he is certain - because of the underwater world, but above all because of the fine-sand beaches being gently washed by the sea. It's like bathing in a swimming pool, only much nicer.

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