Tourists flee Sri Lanka, as travel industry faces uncertainty

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COLOMBO (AFP) – Tourists are scrambling to flee Sri Lanka and cancelling holidays after a string of deadly suicide blasts that have sparked concerns the lucrative tourism industry could be sent into a tailspin.

The attacks on hotels and churches came as Sri Lanka was emerging as a leading tourist hot-spot, named the world’s top destination for 2019 by a major guide book.

The Easter Sunday massacre killed nearly 300 people, including 37 foreigners.

German schoolteacher Martin Ewest arrived in the island nation three days ago, hoping for a peaceful holiday with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

But all that changed when he heard about the attacks.

“We want to leave as soon as possible… but our embassy can’t help because they are on holiday, our airline says they can’t do anything, and our hotel has not offered us any assistance,” the 44-year-old told AFP.

“It’s a difficult situation… we are like sitting ducks, waiting until we can leave next week.”

Powerful explosions hit three hotels in the capital Colombo – the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury Hotel, all of which have closed until further notice.

For Pakistani executive Kashif Ali, it was a lucky escape. The 33-year-old had been trying to book his family into the Cinnamon Grand only to be told that no rooms were available.

“We had all these plans to travel around the country but now we are scared to go anywhere,” he told AFP, adding that the blasts brought back disturbing memories of Pakistan’s own history of militant violence.

At Colombo’s international airport, nervous and exhausted travellers lined up to leave the country as heavily armed soldiers manned the entry and exit points.

The sense of anxiety was palpable at hotels lining the capital’s famed beachfront, with five-star properties such as the Taj Samudra Colombo and the Galle Face Hotel putting extra security in place, including armed guards who prevented anyone but guests from entering.

The US has revised its travel advisory for Sri Lanka, warning of further possible terrorist attacks, while other nations such as Australia and Ireland have also advised citizens to exercise caution while in the country.

While the lasting implications of the bombings are still unclear, the short-term effect is likely to be devastating for a country that counts tourism as a key foreign exchange earner.

A decades-long civil war with Tamil insurgents devastated Sri Lanka’s economy, dealing a massive blow to the tropical island’s tourism industry.

But the end of the war in 2009 saw a revival emerge, with more than two million visitors per year since 2016, compared to 448,000 in 2009.

Travel guide book publisher Lonely Planet last October named Sri Lanka as its top destination for 2019, praising “its timeless temples, its rich and accessible wildlife, its growing surf scene and its people who defy all odds by their welcome and friendliness”.

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