In a Sri Lankan beach guesthouse plunged into darkness by a power outage, the owner’s son lights up a WiFi password printed with his phone for two European backpackers. A moment later, the trio grasped the futility of the gesture.
Power cuts, petrol queues and escalating protests are threatening hopes that a tourism boost could help stop the island nation’s deepening financial crisis.
After being ravaged by civil war for decades, the country’s coconut fringed beaches and exotic wildlife have more recently made it a favorite spot for upscale globetrotters and budget travelers alike.
Tourism has become crucial to the economy – its pandemic-enforced shutdown underpins the currency shortage that is driving the current situation.
But now the effects of the crisis are jeopardizing the industry which is a key part of any possible solution, with many smaller operators expecting to hit the wall soon.
“Because of power cuts, we cannot serve our customers,” hostel owner Dilip Sandaruwan told AFP. “They are not satisfied and they are asking for lower prices.”
Her guesthouse a short walk from the beach in the languid coastal town of Mirissa has few bookings, and her family is struggling to pay the interest on loans taken out to get through the Covid years – let alone the principal.
“We are still tense,” Sandaruwan said. “We don’t know how to repay our loans, but the banks are putting a lot of pressure on us.”
Similar stories of doom resonate among business owners in the back streets of Mirissa.
Guests complain of sweating on tropical nights without air conditioning, hoteliers can’t access online reservation platforms, and restaurants worry about how to cater to Western tastes when they struggle to stock up on coffee. imported.
Worsening fuel shortages are making it harder to get around the country, with long lines of motorbike taxis rumbling outside petrol stations waiting for scarce petrol.
“I never let strangers know there was a problem with the fuel,” said Pradeep Chandana De Silva, owner of a motorboat travel agency.
It sends personnel before dawn each day to chase diesel to ferry tourists through the Balapitiya mangrove lagoons, pointing out cormorants and baby crocodiles along the way.
“At the moment the situation is okay, but if there are longer queues and less fuel, it will be terrible for the whole industry,” he said.
– ‘Pretty crazy’ –
Shortages are making daily life miserable for many people in Sri Lanka and resentment is heightened, with security forces deployed around Colombo on Friday after protesters attempted to storm the president’s house overnight.
But bewildered foreign adventurers often arrive unaware of the crisis, or grasping its magnitude.
“Everybody here says to you, ‘Hey, we have a lot of trouble with gas, fuel, electricity and stuff like that,'” said Nick Reiter, a German tourist waiting to refuel his scooter rental at a service station.
“But right now it’s pretty crazy.”
Indian tourist Ayesha Khan said she only found out about the situation after she booked her flights and was considering cancelling.
“We didn’t know much until we came here,” she said, breaking off a romantic sunset stroll along Mirissa beach with her husband.
Both knew their driver had waited for hours in the petrol lines and said the electricity in their accommodation had regularly been cut off without warning, but neither regretted their trip.
“It was just a good experience for us,” Khan’s partner Afnan Syed said.
“I wouldn’t mind coming back here.”
– “Not enough at all” –
Sri Lankan tourism has been plagued by setbacks before, even after the civil war. Islamist attacks on Easter Sunday three years ago targeted hotels and churches, killing 279 people and leading to a wave of cancellations.
A post-pandemic recovery began late last year, with nearly 100,000 arrivals in February, around 40% of previous peaks.
But at the end of that month, Russia invaded Ukraine, halting almost all visits from the first and third sources of foreign arrivals.
And now, even a fully thriving tourism industry alone would not be enough for Sri Lanka to shirk its mounting loan repayments, experts say.
“While tourism has picked up since Covid…it’s not enough at all,” said Suramya Ameresekera, an economist at consultancy JB Securities in Colombo.
“The amount that comes due each month is not covered by the size of tourism receipts,” she added. “Even in the history of Sri Lanka when tourism was at its peak…we still had a current account deficit.”
The government is working to insulate holidaymakers from the hardships facing many of the country’s 22 million people. Accredited tour guides are allowed to skip the gas lines – to the occasional chagrin of other drivers waiting in line.
“We found trouble because they ran out of gas,” said Spanish tourist Nazareth Marina at the century-old Dutch fort in Galle.
But the Sri Lankan people, she added, “treat us really well, so it was really nice to come here now.”