space traveling warriors tier list : Do you have to face fuel lines and blackouts to continue your Sri Lankan vacation?

I stopped counting the line of cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks when I reached 100. It snaked over a kilometer through Dikwella, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, to the small market town’s gas station.

Some stood in line for 48 hours or more. Many pushed their empty vehicles, some slept in the back seats, others chatted with people in front and back. As fuel supplies have dwindled to almost nothing in the last three months, it has become a common sight in towns and cities across Sri Lanka. In the capital Colombo, fuel lines last three or four days.

In Dikwella, I queued on the back of a broken-down motorcycle driven by Samee, the 28-year-old caretaker of my Airbnb in the nearby surf village of Hiriketiya.

With a tourist on board, Samee, who had grown up in the village, went straight to the front of the line. Three military guards stationed at the entrance to the courtyard waved at us through a makeshift barricade. The bomb drivers cleared the way for us. We were back on the road, with a full tank, minutes later.

A motorbike driver with a tourist jumps to the front of the line at a gas station in Weligama earlier this year © Getty Images

The privilege granted to Western tourists in a developing country must require some uncomfortable introspection, even in normal times. This is especially true after the pandemic, with a chasm in economic recovery between the first world and other countries.

In Sri Lanka, prioritizing access to fuel for tourists is a sign of the dilemma the country faces as it tries to stem a spiraling economic crisis. Tourism has been a major source of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves, but the impact of the pandemic, combined with what analysts call economic mismanagement by its government, has left it short of dollars for vital imports of fuel, food and medicine. .

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been criticized for measures such as populist tax cuts and agricultural reforms that led to widespread crop failures, which meant supplementing overseas food stocks.

The resulting economic crisis meant severe fuel shortages, long power cuts and anti-government protests. The number of arriving tourists has dropped even further. Businesses are desperate to restart the tourism industry to get the economy up and running again.

“The only way we can recover from this crisis is to bring tourists here and make them spend their dollars here,” says Nimesh Yatawara, a 30-year-old entrepreneur from Colombo whose businesses include a boutique hotel in Hiriketiya and an Italian restaurant. restaurant in Kandy city. Giving priority to tourists in the fuel lines showed the “desperation” of the situation, he said.

GM090711_22X Sri Lanka map

But things have deteriorated rapidly since fuel ran out in April and the government announced its first wave of rationing. Five days after my trip to the Dikwella gas station late last month, Sri Lanka issued a national fuel access ban for all private vehicles that lasted at least two weeks. The country has closed schools and asked people not to commute to work to help mitigate the crisis. Consumer prices approached hyperinflation levels, with food prices rising 80% in June.

“Most of our places have generators, but now we don’t have access to diesel, so in some places tourists had to go eight hours without electricity,” says Yatawara.

Special measures to protect tourism from the consequences now barely cover the cracks. In Colombo, the big hotels had access to fuel: energy and food are almost uninterrupted and taxis still take tourists to and from the airport.

Tabby Kinder was the only guest when he stayed at Postcard Galle on the south coast

But in other parts of the country, entire supply chains are nearing collapse. In Kandy, Yatawara says his restaurant was forced to close because there is less money to import ingredients, lack of fuel to transport or cook them, fewer cars or buses for employees to get to work, and almost no foreign tourists who can afford it. . the resulting cost premium for eating there. Domestic tourism has also stagnated as prices have risen and transport has become difficult to find.

“During the pandemic, the challenge used to be marketing and getting people to come – now it’s keeping the lights on,” says Max Duddy, a Brit who has lived in Sri Lanka for nine years and runs a yoga retreat in the central village. from Digana. He said they’ve started cooking for hotel guests over a campfire in recent months and bookings are down 80% from 2018.

International visitors in Sri Lanka face uncertain direction during political and economic instability. The UK, US and Australia advised against all non-essential travel to the island nation of 22 million in April and May after violent clashes between protesters and government supporters. When I arrived in Sri Lanka in mid-June, returning home to Hong Kong from a trip to London, the UK had lifted its warning, but the effects were being felt keenly.

I was the only guest at my first hotel, the Flame Tree Estate, in a jungle village near Kandy, and my second, Postcard Galle, on the south coast. Other guests canceled their reservations following advice from their governments. Bookings dropped even before cancellations, hotel staff told me.

I came on vacation, undeterred by grim headlines and desperate to experience a little bit of Asian openness after more than two years (and counting) of effectively closed borders in Hong Kong.

Postcard Galle and other hotels were hit by cancellations after many Western governments advised against travel to Sri Lanka in April and May.

I spent several surreal nights alone in the two empty hotels – both luxurious converted colonial villas – with the singular attention of entire staffs. It reminded me of a friend’s musings about traveling to Bali earlier this year: Before the pandemic, many people would pay big money to experience these places at tourist levels from three decades ago – now you can get it at a reduced price.

Tourism in Sri Lanka had a bad period even before the coronavirus. In April 2019, the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels threatened to destroy the country’s tourism industry. A brief recovery later that year was crushed by the double whammy of the pandemic and the economic downturn that followed.

Typically, tourism contributes around 6% of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product and is the third largest source of its foreign exchange reserves, behind remittances from workers and the garment industry. In 2018, about 2.3 million tourists generated foreign exchange earnings of $4.4 billion, according to government data. But the country has issued a series of total entry bans for international travel during the pandemic, and in 2021, tourists dropped to less than 200,000 and revenues were just $507 million.

The country saw a brief increase in numbers after it opened its borders to vaccinated travelers in January, and by March arrivals were over 100,000, the data shows. But just two months later, in May, arrivals reached around 30,000 – half the number of people who arrived in March 2020.

Sri Lankans expect the recovery to be sharp. “Everyone here has a lot of faith in the people and landscapes of Sri Lanka and all it has to offer,” says Alexa Pheloung, a 27-year-old from New Zealand who moved to Sri Lanka’s south coast in 2019. to open a backpacker hostel — plans that were put on hold for three years. “But it’s not whether things are going to get worse, it’s a question of how much worse, and when they will recover.”

Hiriketiya’s empty palm-lined beach famous for surfing © Tabby Kinder

While life for the Sinhalese became increasingly difficult in June, life as a tourist on my travels through Kandy and Galle was only moderately disrupted. Tuk tuk drivers who had gotten gas were still being sold for business; generators in hotels and restaurants were turned on seconds after the power outage; the food menus of hotels that were open barely changed. Long lines for fuel and opinions about Rajapaksa’s leadership spiced up every conversation.

A tuk tuk driver told me he had bought a liter of gasoline the night before on the black market for SLRs 1,500 ($4), about three times the regular price. The value of the Sri Lankan rupee has plummeted – even worse performance than the Russian ruble against the US dollar this year. My Hong Kong dollars burned a hole in my pocket; I started paying a lot more than the drivers asked.

When I arrived in Hiriketiya about a week later, I was questioning the wisdom of my travel plans. In the village, wild peacocks and troops of monkeys roam freely, and the waves of the Indian Ocean lap against palm-lined beaches. It’s a surfer’s paradise, but now most of its hotels and restaurants only open when a guest makes a reservation. “Pre-Covid, you struggled to get a towel on the beach, never mind a surfboard in the water, it was so crowded,” says Pheloung. “Things have changed drastically.”

The village now experiences regular blackouts which in April peaked at 13 hours a day. It was too much for this tourist: on my sixth night, after another three hours of power outage reading by candlelight in a dark, hot Airbnb with no internet or phone signal, I decided to head back to the capital. It only took two messages to find a driver.

During our three-hour trip together the next afternoon, my driver told me he queued for about two days at a gas station, but when he finally got to the pump, he was only allowed fuel rations worth SLR20,000 ( $55). It wouldn’t be enough to last the trip back.

It’s a situation felt throughout Sri Lanka’s tourism industry: how to bring back foreign tourists to help revive the economy, when the current economic situation can barely sustain the domestic population.

Anyone considering a trip to Sri Lanka this year or next also faces a difficult choice. Totally avoid the country and risk of a severely impacted and unexpectedly expensive travel, or support a vulnerable economy unduly impacted by the pandemic and mismanagement. In my case, the trip was worth more than the relatively minor complications. But it is unclear how much more desperate the situation will become. Those traveling with children or in large groups would find it more difficult to justify the risk.

Days later in Colombo, seeing the roads slowly emptying out, I texted Samee to see if he’d been able to refuel his bike since I was in Dikwella. “I’m walking now,” he replied.

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