Tue, Jan 04, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Sri Lanka prays that tourism industry will survive the deluge

Thousands of people along the devastated South Asian coast, dependent on tourism for their livelihoods, are asking themselves: `Will the tourists come back?'

DPA , Bentota, Sri Lanka

"We were very, very lucky," said Michael Weyland, the signs of the past week's toil etched on his worn, tired features and his red-rimmed eyes.

Weyland, a German national, manages the Lankan Princess hotel in the Sri Lankan beach resort of Bentota.

The hotel was spared the worst of last week's devastating sea surges -- no guests were killed or injured, and the mostly German, Austrian and Swiss tourists staying at the hotel pitched in along with the staff to help with cleaning and repairing in the aftermath of the tidal waves.

A week later, the worst is over, although the hotel still bears the scars of the waters that rushed through it rooms. It won't be long however, until Weyland and his staff are once again open for business, once again ready to welcome Westerners to this one-time holiday paradise.

The question Weyland, as well as the countless thousands of others along the devastated South Asian coast dependent on tourism for their livelihoods, are asking themselves is: "Will the tourists come back?"

Up the beach in the hotel Taj Exotica, the brochures still offer travelers jet-ski hire, windsurfing lessons and all the normal pleasures of a relaxing holiday by the beach.

Outside, the hotel's private stretch of beach is littered with the remains of the bamboo huts that once housed stacks of surfboards but were shattered by the incoming waves.

The same brochures still tell guests of the pleasures of having a drink at the hotel's poolside bar, "where you can sit and watch the endless waves of the Indian Ocean as they gently lap the shore."

So far, nobody has got around to changing the brochures to something more suitable. There are far more urgent tasks to attend to.

The main road from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo to the many beach resorts still looks like a war zone. Whole neighborhoods have been leveled by the terrible waves. Scores of people dig through the rubble where their houses once stood, searching frantically and forlornly for belongings, or even loved ones.

Upturned fishing boats, their hulls cracked and shattered, line the roads miles inland, borne by the boiling sea.

Along the beach itself, just a week ago packed with holidaymakers, a lone tourist or two are encountered perhaps every hundred meters or so. Even then, they are wary of venturing near the water, but lay down their towels close to high ground and keep an eye on the sea.

Nobody risks a New Year's swim in the sea that last Sunday brought death to thousands.

Cor de Wit and Tania Szado are two of the few remaining tourists in the hotel.

Szado, a scientist in Cambridge, was unsure if staying put was the right thing to do.

"But we could help," she says, explaining how after the waters had receded she helped locals clear debris from the beach.

The two also joined forces with hotel staff, collecting money to buy medicine, milk powder, rice and other basics and bringing them to a camp nearby for those whose homes had been destroyed.

For both, New Year's celebrations were muted. Along with other guests who have stayed behind as well as hotel staff, they held a candlelit ceremony on the beach to commemorate the victims of last Sunday's disaster.

The holiday has not exactly been the relaxing beachside break they were expecting, says de Wit.

"But it's allowed us to see how people can come together and help each other -- that's an experience that will stay with me forever."

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