Hoteliers in Sri Lanka are cutting prices in an attempt to win back tourists deterred from visiting the Indian Ocean island by continuing civil conflict.
According to figures published this week, the number of British visitors to Sri Lanka fell from 38,420 during the first five months of last year to 34,021 in the same period this year.
The island has struggled to attract tourists in the aftermath of the tsunami of December 2004 as a result of escalating tensions between the Tamil Tigers and the government.
Some hotels are being forced to close as occupancy levels plummet. In May, tourist arrivals fell by 40 per cent compared with the same month last year. Others are reducing prices (see offers, right).
The mood in the southern city of Galle has been `sombre` due to the drop in tourist numbers, according to Geoffrey Dobbs, who owns three boutique hotels and two villas in Sri Lanka.
`Things are difficult,` he said. `We are up this year but some three-star hotels are shutting down. When people have debts and are running at 10 per cent occupancy, you can deduce that nobody is making any money. But most people who visit say they don`t see what all the fuss is about. And there are a lot of bargains, which makes it a great time to visit.` Tourism officials have emphasised that the Foreign Office advises against travel only to the north and north-eastern regions.
`In more than 20 years of struggle, no foreigners have been affected. Companies like First Choice, Kuoni, Virgin, Thomas Cook and MyTravel would not invest in Sri Lanka or send customers there if it were not safe,` said Jean-Marc Flambert, director of Sri Lanka Tourism for the UK and Ireland. `We are optimistic that, despite certain setbacks, 2007 will close well.` The Foreign Office has noted that security has been tightened in Colombo and its surrounding areas following the bombing of the military part of Bandaranaike Airport in March and three bomb attacks on military personnel in Colombo`s suburbs in April and May.
A spokeswoman for First Choice, which launched direct weekly flights from Gatwick in February, said that Sri Lanka remains a popular destination.
`Sri Lanka is performing well with sales up year on year,` she said. `It is also one of our top sellers for weddings.` Operators and hoteliers hope that the planned visit of the England cricket team at the end of this year may also encourage tourists to return.