Sri Lanka for Geographical Magazine – Tourism in the North West

Tourism in North West Sri Lanka
North West Sri Lanka, the area stretching up north from Colombo to the jungle below Jaffna was affected very badly during the civil war against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).  Successive waves of Tiger and government forces occupied and fought over this land and it was the scene for a series of atrocities.  Although the war came to an end in May 2009, the people of North Western Tamil Sri Lanka are still struggling with the after effects of decades of deprivation and suffering.  Much of the population was caught up in the fighting and many others ran away.  Infrastructure was destroyed; bridges blown up and railways attacked.  They were effectively cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka.  Sid Kumara, from the Abode Trust, the first tour group to offer trips to the North West, describes Kalpitiya, Mannar Island and the surrounding area as being fifty years behind the rest of Sri Lanka.
‘During the war, people survived through fishing, they were resilient.’ He tells me,  ‘The ones who managed to avoid the war kept their heads down.  They are tough people.  Its still tough for them, they have nothing.’As a tourist destination the rest of Sri Lanka has been enjoying a resurgence of fortunes since the end of the civil war. Tourists have been visiting in record numbers and foreign investment is growing.
‘Peace is the biggest investment for the development of tourism in any country,’ says the country’s Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa.
Tourist numbers had slumped sharply during the thirty-year conflict and now, three years after government forces killed the head of the LTTE effectively ending the war, the government is keen to put it behind them.
‘The nature has blessed us with beautiful beaches, waterfalls, exotic wildlife and historic places. We as a nation have a reputation for our hospitality,” says Mr Rajapaksa, the younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.The government is keen to capitalise on the country’s natural attractions and has stated its intention to build another 40,000 hotel beds before 2016.  New hotels are being built along the East coast near Trincomalee and up from Arugum Bay, but the tourist industry is also looking northwest to Tamil lands. Here there are pristine beaches, clean water full of marine life and beautiful unspoilt landscapes.  The first area on the agenda is Kalpitiya, a peninsular 123 kilometres north of Colombo, which juts out into the Indian Ocean.  There are a number of low-lying islands in a lagoon here that tourist officials are touting as the next Maldives.
The General Manager of the Sri Lankan Convention Bureau, Vipula Wanigasekera outlines plans for, ‘golf courses, an underwater amusement park, villas, chalets and seventeen exclusive ‘high-end’ resorts on the fourteen islands lining Kalpitiya lagoon.’Chairman of the Dutch Bay Resorts, Neil De Silva says that Sri Lanka is being converted to an upmarket destination, which high spending tourists will patronise.
‘This is why we are investing in this project.  Due to terrorism, Sri Lanka lost many opportunities that went to Male, Thailand, Mauritius and other neighboring countries. Kalpitiya Zone will now attract more investors… The project will help everyone here.’These developments however, are being strongly contested.  Kalpitiya is a beautiful, unspoilt place.  Four thousand fishermen ply the waters around the islands, but have recently found themselves cut off from their traditional fishing grounds. In September 2011, they staged a noisy demonstration in Colombo, demanding an end to development and unrestrained access to their fishing grounds.  The navy, which is under the ultimate control of another of the President’s brothers, patrols the water around the islands, turning back whale-watchers and journalists as well as the fishermen.
Herman Kumara of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement says the tourism project gravely threatens their livelihood and is being imposed from the top down.
‘These people don’t know what is going on – what will happen to their lives and livelihoods – and how it will create any benefit, any positive things for their lives,’ he says.
In the north east of Sri Lanka, an area also being developed for the tourist trade, activists complain about lack of transparency,  the forced appropriation of lands, environmental destruction and the involvement of the army in business deals.  Tourist Watch, a German organisation states that, ‘Out of every tourist dollar spent in the country, a significant portion goes to the island’s military, further contributing to human rights violations.This looks like a story set to be repeated throughout the north of Sri Lanka.  Rex Hathaway, a British businessman, who has lived and worked in Sri Lanka for many years, describes it as, ‘post-war, cowboy country’.
‘The Tamils were exploited before, treated like second-class citizens, which is why they revolted,’ he tells me, ‘There is a land grab going on and the Tamils will be the losers once again.’
Senul Abdeen Saleema who lives in Kalpitiya town says that De Silva’s hotel occupies coconut palm land which belongs to her – inherited from her grandfather – and that a fraudster using forged deeds ‘sold’ it to Mr De Silva.
Many people who fled the war have returned to find their houses or land occupied and land deeds are often forged.
‘People cannot sell land without deeds but they cannot find them.’  Ilakiyan, a local Tamil man from Mannar tells me.  ‘Developers are putting wire around their land and they cannot stop it’.sri lankaThe government needs to repair infrastructure and to resolve Sri Lanka’s chronic shortage of energy before much more development can take place.  They are turning to international investors to help with this.  Right at the point that the peninsular of Kalpitiya touches the mainland, an enormous coal-fired power station is in the final stages of completion.  The power station towers over surrounding countryside, pylons marching out to sea and to the mainland.  Several years ago, the Bishop of Chilaw led a large and passionate demonstration against its construction.  The demonstrators wanted to highlight how pollution from the plant would affect the local population.  Environmentalists from around the world also protested at the threat to the reef and the whale and dugong population offshore.2084Opening_Charcol_Power_Plant_NorochcholeJ

‘It’s being built with Chinese money in return for the use of a deep-water harbour.  The Indians are furious that the Chinese will have a harbour deep enough for nuclear subs right at their doorstep and are threatening the president with repercussions if the Chinese start to come here,’ a local hotel owner tells me, ‘Also the plant was built with the understanding that the coal used would be bought from the Chinese.  This is coal that cannot be sold on the open market, as it is unclean and high in sulphates that are linked to acid rain.  The rain will affect the ancient city of Anuradhapura.  It will be operational in four years time.  It is a disaster for businesses in Kalpitiya and the whole of Sri Lanka’.

Although de Silva and the Sri Lankan tourist board insist that the tourist developments will be sensitively managed, Tourist Watch notes that in Kalpitiya and further south, ‘All these developments are not considering the environment. Various tourism policies mention environmental protection and coastal conservation, but in reality there is no weight on this’.


The largest tourist attraction in this area is Wilpattu National Park, just inland from Kalpitiya and Sri Lanka’s largest park.  It reopened to visitors in March 2011.  During the war, the Tigers entered the park and killed a number of game wardens; they burnt down game huts and laid down mines.  Although it briefly opened in 2003 during a lull in hostilities, it was quickly shut down again after a number of visitors stumbled upon land mines.  Now open again and hopefully mine-free, the tourist authorities are eager to promote it.   Its isolation has helped with the preservation of its animal population and there are healthy numbers of leopards, sloth bears, elephants and crocodiles. The beaches here have amazing copper sand which our safari guide told us was very valuable, but due to the war hasn’t been exploited.  There are unexplored temples deep in the jungle – ancient stones covered in sloth bear dung and carved in ancient Sinhalese.  It is not yet on the mass tourist circuit but with the development of nearby Kalpitiya it is expected to be a major draw.  The tourist board talk of a corridor for tourists between Kalpitiya, Wilpattu and the ancient site of Anuradhapura to the east.  There are also however, hotly contested plans to build two new highways through the middle of the park to accommodate traffic north.


North of Wilpattu, the scars of war are more apparent and the land is desolate and deserted. A few palm leaf shacks and some abandoned farms line the main road.   This is where Manic Farm is situated.  During the war Manic Farm served as a government internment camp and it is rumoured that hundreds of thousands of people were interrogated here.  It is now used to house displaced people, one of many such camps in the north.  It is estimated that there are still up to 800,000 displaced people in Sri Lanka, seemingly invisible to the country’s media.  Large areas of Tamil land stretching up north and east from above Wilpattu are still mined and the UN has estimated that it will take up to forty years to completely clear Sri Lanka of mines.  Until their homes are made safe, people have nowhere else to go and are forced to remain in the camps.  Sid Kumara tells me that the presence of places like Manic Farm will make it difficult for the government to encourage visitors to the North.
‘There is much that the army does not want the outside world to see,’ he says.


The armed forces still occupy northern Sri Lanka and although the checkpoints are open now and the soldiers acting friendly, they keep a close eye on the inhabitants. The UN  voted in March on a resolution concerning the President’s and the security forces’ possible involvement in alleged war crimes.  An estimated 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the war.  A Channel 4 documentary, ‘The Killing Field,’ the second part of which aired a week before the vote, revealed what appeared to be mobile phone videos of massacres carried out by the armed forces.  The evidence shown in the programme has added weight to the UN campaign and the government in Colombo has reacted furiously, staging demonstrations against Channel 4 and the British government.
Partly due to these investigations, there has been a change in the government’s economic strategy, Tourist Watch believes; a move away from Europe and America to rely more on Asian countries for arms, aid and investment.


Nick Clark from Experience Sri Lanka and Sid Kumara both believe that after Kalpitiya, the tourist industry will turn its attention to Mannar Island, 50 kms from Wilpattu.  Sid believes that its proximity to India and its beautiful beaches will be the draw.  ‘It will start with backpackers’, he says ‘and Indian tourists and then big business will come’.  Lonely Planet mentions Mannar Island in its latest edition, but in very little detail and there are still relatively few places to stay.  Sid runs the only home stay here.

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Before the war Mannar was a flourishing place and an important link with India.  There was a daily ferry to the southern Indian port of Danushkodi and a train line to Colombo and Jaffna.  Oil had been found in the northernmost tip and Indian oil companies had begun to buy land. Bird watchers came in their thousands to view the wading birds of Giant’s Tank and Christian pilgrims came to visit the famous statue of Our Lady of Madhu.  The struggle for Tamil independence changed all that however and Mannar now is like a land lost in time.

The crossing to Mannar Island is via an enormous new bridge, a gift from Japan. Japanese companies have started speculative drilling off the coast near here and further down towards the remains of the famous Pearl Fisheries.  From the bridge you can see the shattered remains of a bombed railway bridge and in the distance a large number of new Mobil telecom towers.
‘The bridge, the telecom towers and plans for a new railway shows that the government wants to rebuild transport links with India,’ I am told by Nick Clark, ‘Mannar Island has the closest crossing point to India – it is an important spot.’The island itself is a beautiful, 50km square, sand spit stretching out towards the Indian sub-continent and ending in the famed island shoal of Adams Bridge.  The roads are lined with coconut trees and the occasional baobab, brought over from Africa by Arab traders to feed their camels with.  Investment seems to have ended with the new bridge though, the roads are terrible, donkeys and cows negotiate them with more success than cars and electricity is intermittent.  Shells of half-built NGO funded houses sit in recently cleared plots.  Children play amongst the broken bamboo scaffolds.
‘They are for returning people,’ Ilakiyan who lives here, shrugs, ‘but the money ran out’. The land is arid and the 50,000 remaining inhabitants mostly make their living from fishing the plentiful waters.  The sea around Mannar forms part of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve and there are healthy numbers of endangered dolphin and turtle species as well as sharks and dugong.  The long, lovely beaches along the Gulf of Mannar are backed by coconut palms and are deserted save for a number of line fishermen who pull in vast numbers of fish every morning in the traditional way.  It’s easy to see why this would be attractive to developers and local people believe that their land will be worth a lot soon.  Freedom from war has brought big ambitions for tourism.
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‘Once the ferry to India is reinstated, it’ll be easy for southern Indians to come here,’ Sid is cautiously optimistic about the future of Mannar.  ‘Soon Mannar will have benefits from contact with India, as long as they share in it – people were not educated during the war and it will be easy for other people to take advantage of them.’

Adams Bridge is an important place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Muslims and local people expect pilgrims to visit once the ferry begins, possibly later this year.  According to the Ramayana, these island shoals were the stepping-stones used by the monkey god Hanuman to travel from India to Lanka.  Muslims believe that Adam crossed over Adams Bridge and that both he and Eve are buried on Mannar Island. Recent satellite images have shown Adams Bridge to be man-made, making it one of the oldest causeways in the world and proving that the earliest human settlers reached the island nearly 300,000 years ago.  Hindu and Muslim groups as well as environmental groups are trying to fight Indian government plans to build a sea crossing through Adams Bridge.
Rex Hathaway tells me of possible plans for the north and for Mannar.
‘If the disputed Indian sea crossing through Adam’s Bridge goes ahead, then Mannar Island will become an important seaport.  North Sri Lanka is opening up’, he tells me. ‘It’s a game with big players’.


Rex Hathaway believes that the development of large industries will take precedent over tourism here for a while yet.  Jaffna is open for business again and several major industries including mining are building operations in northern Sri Lanka.  Enormous cement works are planned for Jaffna and American and Japanese plants can already be seen incongruously positioned on tiny islands off the east coast near Trincomalee.
‘The business interests of the Chinese, Japanese and Indians will direct development up here,’ he predicts, ‘Tourism is trickier, it will take second place.’


We visit Madhu cathedral on the mainland and the army stops us to check our passports before we are allowed up into the jungle to visit it.  One hundred and sixty people were killed when the army fired on the cathedral and the blackened spires can still be seen.  There is an enormous swathe of impenetrable jungle behind the cathedral, a great belt reaching up, hundreds of kilometres towards Jaffna.  This whole area was extensively mined during the war and it is deserted.  It is not known what animals survive; but few are seen.  It is hard to imagine mass tourism here.

It is difficult to assess the future for tourism in North West Sri Lanka.  The end of the war has opened it up to visitors and investment, but the devastation that the war brought is still hampering the lives of the people here.
‘I hope that tourism will bring benefits,’ says Sid Kumara, ‘but looking at what has happened to the rest of Sri Lanka in recent years, I am worried that it will be only big businesses that prosper and the rest of us will suffer.
The tourist authorities feel differently, ‘Its all about sustainable development’ they have stated, ‘We want to protect and preserve.  Sri Lanka has so much to offer, it’s a paradise, we want to make sure that everybody shares in that.’


Georgina Allen


2 thoughts on “Sri Lanka for Geographical Magazine – Tourism in the North West

    • Hi Adrian,
      I’m not so sure – it depends how people visit. Obviously if they go to the big government-owned hotels it would not necessarily be a good idea. But most of the places mentioned here are small, independent and bring much needed money into the area. I think if you go to they have a comprehensive list of really good and private places.

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