The GotaGoGama protest site near Galle Face in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where protesters demanding the resignation of President Gotobaya Rajapaksa amid an economic crisis are camped out. Photo: Bloomberg
Destinations known
by Mark Footer
Destinations known
by Mark Footer

It takes a hardy tourist to visit Sri Lanka amid protests and power cuts

  • Fuel is in short supply, power cuts can last half a day and Sri Lanka’s people are going hungry amid its economic crisis. Some take to the streets in protest
  • It’s probably not the best time for a holiday on the island, though you’ll be welcomed if you do visit. Don’t try to travel around, and stay in a luxury hotel

Is Sri Lanka the canary in the coal mine or the elephant in the room?

The erstwhile tourist magnet of 22 million people, off India’s southern tip, is struggling through its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain, in 1948.

Sri Lanka “has a long history of rising foreign obligations, driven partly by incessant government deficits, and this has been worsened by a loss of tourism revenue in the pandemic and, this year, by surging fuel costs”, explains Reuters. “The resulting severe shortage of foreign exchange has stalled imports, including essentials such as fuel and medicines, and the country is also facing an impending food crisis.”

And it’s not just the people who are going hungry. “Sri Lanka’s Department of Zoology has informed the Wildlife Ministry that it has run out of funds to provide daily food to animals in zoos amid the ongoing economic crisis,” reports Xinhua, noting that the country’s Dehiwala Zoological Garden is one of the oldest in Asia.

People queue up to buy kerosene for cooking at a supply station in Colombo. Photo: AFP
As privations bite, Sri Lankan citizens are becoming increasingly restless, taking out their anger on the politicians they see as having mismanaged the economy. Violence has been reported, but largely peaceful protests centre on what’s been christened GotaGoGama village, an area adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face, in one of the busiest business hubs of the capital, Colombo. The name essentially means, “ President [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] Go Home”.

With music, waving flags and a tented library, medical centre and shops, the scene should be familiar to those who remember Hong Kong’s Occupy Central encampments in 2014. At least one “glass-half-full” travel website is touting GotaGoGama as Sri Lanka’s latest tourist attraction.

‘It’s too much’: As India swelters, the poorest suffer most

Some analysts see Sri Lanka as the first of several indebted countries (is there any other kind?) – in Asia and elsewhere – that will have to deal with such turmoil as the stresses of war further depress economies and complicate geopolitical relationships already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, it isn’t difficult to see Sri Lanka’s woes as an indictment of the unsustainable way the world consumes in the era of climate breakdown. The fact the Indian subcontinent has suffered from what Scientific American magazine calls “astonishing heat” this year is ominous. Perhaps Sri Lanka is both a canary and an elephant.

Destinations Known contacts in Sri Lanka suggest now isn’t the time to visit for a holiday, especially for families and elderly travellers. Nevertheless, according to a recent article in India’s The Hindu newspaper, “Sri Lanka continues to welcome tourists, as hotels and restaurants innovate to stay open.”

Most of the rooms in the five-star Taj Samudra hotel in Sri Lanka were empty on a recent visit. Photo: Taj Samudra hotel

The newspaper visits Colombo’s Ministry of Crab, one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, where, undeterred by a power cut, “diners continue to tuck into Sri Lanka’s famously sweet mud crabs, slathered in garlic and butter”. By candlelight.

“As supplies of imported produce run out, restaurants are being forced to rethink menus, but fortunately for [Ministry of Crab], their focus is on freshly caught, local crabs. They have, however, like most other businesses, been forced to raise prices to compensate for rising costs. They also recently introduced a dollar menu, as the value of the Sri Lankan Rupee now fluctuates from day to day,” The Hindu reports.

The newspaper also visits the five-star Taj Samudra hotel, which has views of the Laccadive Sea as well as the vibrant GotaGoGama village. After a post-lockdown rebound in guest numbers, the Taj is now running at about 20 per cent occupancy.

Sri Lankan children play during a power cut in their neighbourhood in Colombo. Photo: AP,

Grasping at straws, general manager Pankaj Sampat points out that international exchange rates being what they are, a trip to Sri Lanka is now much more affordable than it was even just a few months ago – assuming you can pay your way in rupees, of course. At the time of writing, HK$1 will buy you more than 45 Sri Lankan rupees. On March 1, that same Hong Kong dollar would have acquired just 25 rupees.

The three pieces of advice The Hindu offers for tourists who may wish to brave a trip to Sri Lanka are these: limit your movement by vehicle as much as possible because fuel is not only expensive, it’s also difficult to find; luxury hotels are more likely to be able to keep the lights and air conditioners on than resorts and homestays, which “swelter through the power cuts which are usually three to four hours, but have been known to go up to 13 hours”; and locals remain hospitable and welcoming of the business tourists bring, so tip generously.

Here’s to a speedy recovery, Sri Lanka, and to taking some of that GotaGoGama pluck onto the cricket pitch while the Aussies are touring.

A man counts Sri Lankan rupee banknotes at a wholesale market in Colombo. The currency has depreciated sharply this year. Photo: Bloomberg

Talking Türkiye

The government in Ankara has requested the name of its country be changed from Turkey to Türkiye (pronounced, “tur-key-yay”), in part because it often gets confused in Google searches for the big bird gobbled down at Christmas and on other celebratory occasions in the West.

Furthermore, “Flip through the Cambridge Dictionary and ‘turkey’ is defined as ‘something that fails badly’ or ‘a stupid or silly person’,” points out TRT World, the English-language state broadcaster of Turkey … sorry, Türkiye.

People visit the mausoleum of the Turkish Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The country has formally adopted the name Türkiye. Photo: Getty Images

According to the Associated Press newswire, Ankara sent a letter to the United Nations formally requesting that the country be referred to as Türkiye, and the UN, perhaps relieved it was being asked to do something non-controversial for a change, agreed immediately, confirming that the new name had become effective “from the moment” the letter was received.

Fortunately for crackers of bad culinary-related jokes, Hungary, Greece and Chile are not planning name changes any time soon.