In Sri Lanka, Suffering and Hope
A boat for tourist excursions on the beach at Unawatuna, south of Colombo.
Since the tsunami in December, there have been few tourists there.
@ Sriyantha Walpola for The New York Times
IN the weeks following the tsunami, some of the staff at the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, Sri Lanka, would flinch at the sight of guests laughing and enjoying themselves at the bar or by the newly renovated pool. Many from Galle, at the southernmost tip of the island, lost family and homes when the waves struck, and initially the tourists' lack of sensitivity to their grief was hard to bear.
More recently, however, desperation for a return of foreigners and the money they bring to the area has hardened the staff to this uncomfortable clash of emotions.
"For a while, I was upset to see people drinking and singing in the hotel when we were so unhappy, but now I realize it's natural," said Srinath Raveendra, 37, who works in the storeroom of the hotel. He smiled bravely in the deserted terrace restaurant early this month.
"We can't expect foreigners to come here to cry for us," he added. "And without them, we'd be penniless."
Nearby, staff members in starched uniforms leaned at different angles of idleness at the empty bar, glancing occasionally with some anxiety at the roughening sea.
"I lost my father, but I can't go on crying every day," Mr. Raveendra said. "What's the use of that? He was 80. He couldn't run fast enough from the wave."
His attitude reflects Sri Lanka's determination to resurrect its tourism industry from ruin after the Dec. 26 tsunami ravaged much of its coastline. The Tourism Ministry has begun a $6 million marketing campaign to lure visitors back to the island, but the strategy has had only limited success. Many areas remain in such bad shape that they offend the sensibilities of visitors who come in search of poolside relaxation.
The nation's tourist industry accounts for about 3 percent of gross domestic product, according to Sri Lankan tourism officials, and about 800,000 people depend on it - directly or indirectly - to live. At the moment, things look bleak for many of them; hotels across the country are running on average at 20 percent capacity, even though 80 percent of them were untouched by the disaster, the Tourism Ministry says.
The tsunami came at a terrible time for Sri Lanka, which was only just rebranding itself as a peaceful destination after years of civil war. Then, just as tourists were beginning to return, a tsunami alert after another earthquake late in March scared more people away.
No tourist can ignore the human suffering during the drive down the coast from the capital, Colombo, along the country's most developed stretch of beaches. Thousands of homeless people are still living in tents by the roadside, and hundreds of buildings remain in a half-collapsed state, tilting to the side, their tiled roofs hanging to the ground.
The coast at Unawatuna, about three miles south of the Lighthouse, forms the kind of beach that travel brochures gush about - miles of deserted virgin sand, away from the tourist masses, an undiscovered paradise. But Guy Lichter, 29, a backpacker from Israel, surveyed the scene a few weeks ago with a mixture of shock and confusion. Sitting on the half-sunken concrete foundations of what once must have been a beach restaurant, he tried to fend off the persistent attention of wild dogs as he absorbed the devastation around him.
A few hotels are open along the bay at Unawatuna, newly repainted in bright, cheerful yellows and oranges, but most of them are abandoned shells. Apart from the odd, lone figure, tourists are still staying away.
"I don't think it's going to be easy to have much fun here," Mr. Lichter said.
Several paces away, Hilda Weerasingha swept the porch of the Strand, her ruined hotel. She said she was optimistic that the tourist industry would soon pick up, and placed a new vase of pink plastic roses on the crumbling veranda wall as if to distract from the surrounding devastation. "It will take another three months, and then we will be ready," she said firmly.
But it looked as though it would be much longer. The back half of the building has no walls, and the palm-tree-lined vista down to the sea is marred by piles of rubble, where toilet cisterns, old motorbikes and foam mattresses lie amid crumpled camp beds, shoes and doors ripped from their hinges. "It looked prettier before, when we had flowers here," Ms. Weerasingha said.
This stretch of the Sri Lankan coast was hit by the December tsunami at 9:05 a.m. Some villages were left untouched while others were savaged by the waves. Farther south, where the impact was strongest, whole hotels were washed away. Even in the half-devastated resorts, however, the residents are determined that the foreigners must return - and the sooner the better.
Most workers struggle to stay upbeat. In the Bentota Beach Hotel, north of Unawatuna, the music by the pool bar was turned up to create an atmosphere of festivity, but there weren't enough guests to sustain that mood. And there was no disguising the gloom of staff members like Ariya Gunasekara, who used to read 20 palms a day and now is lucky if he finds just three clients a week. He is beginning to worry about how he will feed his six children. Mannege don Nihal Gunewansa, a tour guide who has worked on the beach for 20 years, has been forced to pawn his rings and necklace.
"The waves no longer wash in fridges and televisions, but the guests are still frightened of the sea." he said. "They prefer to stay by the pool; so we have no work."
At the Lighthouse Hotel, much has been done to conceal the destruction. Oil paintings and antiques that were washed away have been recovered, restored and replaced, and water stains have been whitewashed. But beyond the palms that surround the newly restored pool is a panorama of chaos: rows of blue United Nations tents, home to hundreds of displaced families.
"Yes, but if you're lying by the pool you can't really see them, and we're growing plants and building a wall here, so that they won't be visible," the hotel's assistant manager, Ananda de Silva, said reassuringly.
He could, however, do nothing to muffle the noisy protests of angry victims who demonstrated nearby in the town's main square, angry at the government's failure to distribute aid money.
There are not many leisure travelers in the badly hit resorts. Early this month, 32 of the Lighthouse's 63 rooms were taken, but of these only 7 were occupied by actual tourists - the rest were aid workers or others on tsunami-related business.
Even the few tourists had some altruism mixed in with their desire to sunbathe. Some had been here before and were returning to help friends; others had read news reports stressing that what the country needs most is to have its tourism regenerated.
But taking a vacation in a disaster zone - even when it's encouraged by government, victims and aid agencies - raises uncomfortable questions. Sipping lemonade by the Bentota pool, Barry Preedy, an accountant from England, said the experience was a good way of teaching his three teenage daughters about poverty.
There is no avoiding the fact, however, that for some, the remnants of the disaster are becoming a tourist attraction. At Peraliya, where about 1,500 passengers died when their train was swept from the tracks, air-conditioned tour buses stopped to release dozens of sunburned Europeans. Tourists stared at the bent carcasses of three railroad cars and took pictures.
One local woman showed an American man and his French girlfriend pictures of her dead grandchildren and they handed her some money; she showed them pictures of her dead daughter and they gave her another handful of notes.
In Sri Lanka on an irresistible two-for-one deal, Sigita Bakanauskiene, 25, a ballroom dancing teacher from Lithuania, said that seeing the train finally helped her to understand the strength of the tsunami.
"It's sad to see how hungry people here are for money," she said. "We're going to try to find money to help our taxi driver rebuild his home."
No matter how much residents want normality to be restored, the coast south of Colombo does not seem ready for mass tourism.
"People are disturbed by the tents," said Sanjiva Gautamadasa, manager of the Lighthouse. "It's not that it ruins their time here, it's more that they can't really classify this as a relaxing holiday. Tourists usually go away in search of peace and tranquillity, but here they are distressed by what surrounds them. It starts them thinking, and quite often that's the last thing you want to do on holiday."
Even the Tourist Ministry admits that for the moment, it would be better for visitors to stick to the unaffected resorts farther north or travel to cultural centers inland. Prathap Ramanujam, Sri Lanka's tourism secretary, said he hoped things would be normal by the fall, when the new tourist season begins, but, he said, for now things are still difficult.
"These people have lost homes and relatives and they are still in shock," he said. "Trauma does not disappear after two months. We need to rebuild these areas first."