Mon, Jul 02, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka's luxury hotels hurt by violence

`DIRTY DESTINATION' As the Tigers step up their fight for an independent homeland and as government forces respond to it with veracity, the frontline is never far away


The interior of a bedroom at The Casa Colombo Hotel, a former 200-year-old Moorish mansion in Colombo. Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, Sting and Paul Simon have all travelled to Sri Lanka for a taste of tropical luxury. But an escalating war with Tamil Tiger rebels and increasingly gruesome headlines means that the rich or famous are now staying away.


Singers Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, Sting and Paul Simon have all traveled to Sri Lanka for a big-bucks taste of tropical luxury.

But an escalating war with Tamil Tiger rebels and increasingly gruesome headlines on the human- rights situation means that the rich are now staying away -- and rooms in the island's boutique hotels are going for a song.

"They [tourists] have known for years that terrorism here is centered around military targets," said Gehan Wijeratne, director of Jetwing Group which runs a chain of 10 hotels, including three properties catering to the deep-pocketed visitor.

"But travelers don't like lawlessness, where there are extra-judicial killings, abductions. It sends shivers down their spine. Human rights are emerging as a bigger concern, people starting to brand us as a dirty destination," he said.

One example of luxury rooms going cheap is at Jetwing's Vil Uyana, or Water World -- a resort built over a wetland in Sigiriya, 170km north of Colombo.

From the outside, the 25 thatched roof huts built over lush green rice paddy fields are a throw-back to an early civilization, but the interiors are designed to pamper to every whim of the most discerning traveler.

"It's like living in a private nature reserve," British banker Michael Maillou said as he worked on his tan, sipped fresh mango juice and took in a view of lakes and reed beds populated by monkeys and wild elephants.

"This is paradise, to relax among hundreds of birds, butterflies, two crocodiles and get a piece of history," he said waving to the nearby 5th-century Sigiriya rock fortress, a world heritage site.

Near the stunning fortress, once the seat of a playboy king, are frescoes of women and a spread of ruins of the island's ancient royal kingdoms.

And thanks to the grim headlines on Sri Lanka putting off many potential visitors, Maillou can also savor one of the best buys in the tropics -- rather than the usual daily rate of US$400, the picture-postcard eco-lodges are going for US$125.

Famed for its hills of tea plantations, golden beaches, abundance of wildlife and ancient religious sites, the teardrop island of Sri Lanka is now crying out for tourists.

The problem is, as the Tamil Tigers once again step up their fight for an independent ethnic homeland in the north and east, and as government forces respond with equal veracity, the frontline is never far away.

After an all-too brief lull in fighting following a 2002 ceasefire agreement and the 2004 Asian tsunami, the Tigers have attacked in Colombo, the south, the east -- almost everywhere on the tiny island.

The Tigers have even managed to smuggle light aircraft into their northern mini-state, adding air power to their deadly arsenal of suicide bombers and forcing Sri Lanka's sole international airport to shut up shop at night for fear of more nocturnal raids.

Mounting "disappearances" have also been reported, with mutilated bodies turning up on a regular basis.

"Tourists with deep pockets are our mainstay, but we can't attract enough because of the macro situation in the country," Vil Uyana's manager, Tissa Wickramasuriya, said of the fighting.

Hotels as a whole are now reporting only 30 percent to 40 percent occupancy, as even aid workers -- who packed rooms following the tsunami -- are rare because of increasing donor fatigue and the intractable conflict.

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