For over three decades, the civil war in Sri Lanka drove people and culture out of the Northern Province, all but cutting it off completely from the rest of the country.
Now, both domestic and international tourists are eager to see what they have been missing, especially in northern capital Jaffna, says Northern Provincial Tourism Association (NPTA) secretary Mariathas Kisho Anton.
And rather than run from the North’s troubling past, Anton intends to turn it into an opportunity.
“There is a certain curiosity that surrounds Jaffna, as people have never seen it before.”
“Though we have a nice beach and nice archaeological sites and heritage sites, if we try to develop the dark tourism we can attract more tourists to the Northern province. Other provinces can’t promote that because the Northern province is the one that was totally affected by the war.”
Jaffna has been inaccessible by train from Colombo until earlier this year and following the end of the war in 2009, foreign visitors were restricted from entry until 2011. But in just six years, Anton says that tourism has grown fast, with local investors getting involved, in-bound tour operators beginning to promote Jaffna as a destination, and several more hotels, including a new JetWings property, set to complete construction by 2017.
With all these advances, however, come several challenges that must be overcome if the Northern Province is to contribute to Sri Lanka’s goal of hosting 2.5 million visitors by 2016. Some of the main obstacles concerning Anton include the lack of professional staff and an inability to create such a workforce.
He says that the tourism industry in the North currently relies on graduates from the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management in Colombo, but he would like to see far more opportunities given to local people. However, he says it isn’t easy to recruit local people due to various stigmas attached to working in the service industry in general and tourism specifically. Many people believe tourism will damage Sri Lankan culture.
Anton says that the government has also been resistant to setting up a satellite campus of the Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management in the north. Though the NPTA conducted a need analysis to demonstrate the necessity of such a school in Jaffna and gave a proposal to the tourism minister, who agreed to help, he went back on his agreement after the next election.
“Because of bad politics, we are suffering,” says Anton.
That is why Anton and his team at the NPTA decided to partner with WUSC for the new ASSET project: Advancing Specialized Skills for Economic Transformation. He says that working with international non-profits is necessary if they are to meet rising tourism demands.
And they are already seeing results: the Jaffna Hotel and Tourism Training Centre opened earlier this month, born out of a partnership between the NPTA, Sarvodaya, and WUSC.
The ASSET project in the North will train students in the following areas: housekeeping, food and cookery, and front office. The first 100 trainees have been chosen, and have undergone awareness training with their families to help reduce negative perceptions of the trade.
Based on NPTA consultations with seven Northern hotels, an estimated 400 students are needed to fill the current demand, and up to 600 needed in order to fulfill Sri Lanka’s 2016 goal.
Part of reaching that goal includes the inauguration of the Northern Province Tourism Board within the Ministry of Tourism, to become official in September of this year. Once the board is established, a marketing and promotions person can be hired, thus opening doors to international trade fairs and conferences and attracting more travel agents and tourists to Sri Lanka’s infamous north.
And when they come, Anton plans to be ready.
“I think there will a big boom in the northern province if we give these training programs properly. We can give a lot of opportunities for the local people to be involved in the industry. We can do it, no problem.”