The spectacular sunset, against which Sri Lanka’s famous stilt fishermen are silhouetted, closes yet another beautiful day on this tropical island.
But once the fishermen get off their poles, their downcast faces tell of another story.
“We have to depend on visitors giving us money now, about Rs300 (US$2.94) to pose for photographs,” said R. Ajithwera, 39.
“We are not models but simple fishermen. Before the tsunami, we used to earn up to Rs300 a day catching up to 200 sardines, butterfish and coral fish from our stilts in three hours. Out at sea, our boats hauled in bigger fish like barracudas.”
The harvest has dwindled over the past decade, he said, and the tsunami has changed the tides in a way they couldn’t understand. Now, Ajithwera is supporting his family of three young children by making curry paste to sell to restaurants in Galle for Rs120 (US$1.18) per kg.
While dolphins are again frolicking in the golden waters of Arugam Bay in the east coast and boat charters are back to sea, tourist-related businesses are still picking up the pieces of the tourism pie shattered by the tsunami.
The country of 20 million has traditionally welcomed nearly half a million travellers each year.
As an inexpensive backpackers’ paradise with a laidback charm, Arugam Bay, a tiny fishing village near Pottuvil town was similar to our Port Dickson as a beachside escapade. It was famous as a surfing hotspot, drawing thousands of European surfers between April and November.
But the usual tourist traffic has been reduced to dusty lanes with lorries trundling by loaded with construction materials. The killer waves on Dec 26, 2004 had rendered over 3,000 people homeless.
The most famous hotel here is undoubtedly the Tsunami Beach Hotel, although the beachfront property was not spared the damage the waves wreaked across 20 resorts on the bay.
“Arugum Bay has always been a global travellers’ village,” said the hotel’s cook P. Joseph.
“We are rapidly rebuilding and we expect to receive tourists again in the new year. Last time, many locals asked what tsunami meant. Now everybody knows the word,” he added.
The nearby Tri Star Beach Hotel had Arugam Bay’s first swimming pool when it opened 25 years ago. General manager Elanka Mahadeva said backpackers would camp out on the roads during the peak surfing season when all hotels were packed. Business has dropped 80% since January and only NGOs occupied the rooms.
“We have long been an attractive alternative for travellers tired of crowded beaches at Hikkaduwa or Unawatuna,” said Elanka.
“Our beach has been voted among the world’s top 10. We’re confident tourists will return to Sri Lanka. But the tourism ministry must also promote this side of Sri Lanka, not just the south and west coasts. We have high hopes that 2006 will restore tourism.”
While exploring the wasteland of a once vibrant and picturesque Muslim fishing village of Sainthamaruthu in the badly hit Ampara District, I came across an unexpected aroma of curries and masala chicken wafting from amidst the rubble.
Mohd Yusof Jaufar’s Sea Breeze Restaurant with its breezy rooftop dining space is clearly the only building with life in it.
Sainthamaruthu, with over 3,500 dead, is a wrecked maze of broken concrete with only doorways left standing. However, several fishing boats have begun returning to sea.
Despite the destruction surrounding the restaurant, Jaufar’s famous briyani rice and other food are still packing in the crowds.
“An NGO helped me repair the roof but I lost half a million rupees worth of equipment,” said Jaufar, 37, who opened the restaurant three years ago. “We couldn’t close the restaurant, as NGOs kept knocking on our doors seeking food.”
With its aqua waves framed by beaches of slender coconut trees, Sri Lanka’s southern coastlines are made for postcards and beach breaks. But the area wasn’t spared extensive damage either.
Aruna Weerasekara, owner of South Beach Resort at Ahangama that has a vantage view of the bay, sadly spoke of his Rs6mil (US$58,763) loan to rebuild his wrecked hotel.
“The tsunami has stolen my life’s work,” he said. “I’ve laboured as a cook since 1980, worked seven years in Bahrain and later onboard the Cunard ship stationed at the Gulf War until I saved enough to open my own business in 2004.
“My hotel was fully completed on Dec 20. I hadn’t even celebrated when the tsunami came and I was hospitalised for three weeks. I am grateful the banks supported me. But now I will have to be in debt for the next seven years.”
Penang-born investment banker Christopher Ong who owns the beautifully restored Galle Fort Hotel inside the Unesco World Heritage 17th century Dutch Fort, said they were thankfully spared any damage.
“The walls of this ancient fort protected every building inside,” he said. “But our staff members’ families were affected. We had to give them money to buy coffins, and one staff member needed six.”
The Hilton Group Plc, which owns a top-rated business hotel in Colombo, has contributed some US$420,000 towards reconstruction efforts.
Other international hoteliers are expecting tourism to pick up again. The massive project of The Fortress hotel along the pristine Koggala beach is still on track despite a six months delay.
“We have great expectations what next year will bring,” said the hotel’s general manager Scot Toon.
“Sri Lanka remains a lure due to its charming combination of beautiful beaches, friendly people, a preserved culture and colonial architecture.”
The hotel’s business development group director Asma Rasheed said that tourism has always been a major income-generator in Sri Lanka, contributing over 10% of the country’s GDP.
Said Asma: “Sri Lanka as a destination offers a very diverse leisure product, with places of tourist importance like the hill country of Kandy, the cultural centres like Anuradhapura and finally the popular beaches.
”We expect to see substantial growth for 2006. Increased flight- carrying capacities of various airlines, in both European and Asian sectors, also support tourism growth,” Asma said.
The chic Amangalla had hosted British humanitarian relief teams in January and helped start Project Galle 2005 that fed 30, 000 people in the months following the disaster.
“The historical buildings on our doorstep date from the 16th century, and chart the rise and fall of the colonial powers of the island,” explained its general manager Olivia Richli.
“Galle is very historic and there are great shops, galleries and restaurants within the Fort, and spectacular walks along the ramparts. Within striking distance of the Fort, we have wonderful beaches, temples, tea plantations and rainforests.
“There is no reason for travellers not to return and we hope the New Year will restore more homes and opportunities for the people here.”