Monday, January 21, 2008

Conflicting advice on Sri Lanka safety

Sri Lanka’s fragile peace was shattered last week by a new wave of violence that threatens to destroy the island’s struggling tourist industry. A week after the Sri Lankan government ended the five-year-old ceasefire, Tamil Tiger rebels bombed a bus in the town of Okkampitiya, 150 miles east of Colombo, leaving 38 dead and wounding scores more.

As Amnesty International warned of “a dramatic rise in indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population”, the ferocity of the attack and, crucially, its location in the tourist heartland of the south, has led the German government to issue a travel advisory warning, and some German tour operators to suspend departures to the island.

Here, the Foreign Office (FO) has stopped short of issuing similar advice, maintaining instead its long-standing warning against travel to the north and east of the island. “Our position is that British nationals are most at risk in those parts of Sri Lanka,” it said. “The south has so far been relatively unaffected by the violence, and the decision to advise against travel there is not one that we would take lightly.”

No attack on tourists has yet taken place in Sri Lanka, but there is increasing evidence that the rebels are bringing their struggle for independence from their northern strongholds to the south of the island. Last year, Tamil Tigers moved into Yala National Park, in the southeast of the country, and since October 2006, at least 89 people have died in a dozen attacks around the capital.

The British Tamils Forum has called on British tourists to boycott the island, urging holidaymakers “to think of the deaths and destruction that their money will eventually cause among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and to kindly avoid such travel”.

Jean-Marc Flambert, of the Sri Lankan Tourist Board, disagrees. “About 90% of our tourist infrastructure is privately owned,” he said, “so if you boycott, you’re hurting the people, not the government.”

Meanwhile, the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO) has warned that the UK’s biggest holiday companies are now considering cancelling Kenya itineraries for the rest of the season. “Demand for the country has dropped right off since the trouble started,” said the FTO’s Andrew Cooper, “and operators are now faced with a commercial decision as to whether it is cost-effective to reimplement their programmes.”

by Chris Haslam