A New Beginning for Sri Lanka’s North

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.”

Young Woman, Big Dreams

By the time she turns thirty, Piratheepa Rasenthenthran plans to own her own house and two cars of her own. She also intends to take her mother on a trip around the world.

And with just a little over a decade to go before that birthday, she wants to make every moment count.

In order to do so, she has decided to train in the tourism sector of the ASSET program, because the education is free and she has guaranteed, immediate employment, she says.

The immediacy of the employment is key for Rasenthenthran. Her mother, who has been the sole earner for the family since her father left them to live alone, is now sick and as a result has been fired from the hospital caretaker position that has sustained the family. Though her mother is willing to take any work, job prospects are slim, so Rasenthenthran feels it is her responsibility to support the family.

Her brother suffers from a hole in his heart that has been present since birth, and the surgery was funded from a donor abroad. Her sister is living alone with the help of an aunt while she studies for her Advanced Levels.

Rasenthenthran’s sole focus ASSET is to help alleviate some of the strain her mother and family have experienced.

“I have to save my mother,” she says.

That same sense of drive and responsibility seems to be a hallmark of Rasenthenthran’s personality. She says it has always been her dream to earn and improve her family’s status. She recalls a certain relative that considered her family inferior, and since then has been determined to change that.

She says she also intends to prove to her father that her family can find happiness without him.

She wants to secure a position and begin making money so that when she and her father meet again, she can tell him that they did not need his help to live well.

“I am looking after my mother, earning such a salary, and you have left us, but we are living happily,” she says.

“I can save my mother better than you until the end of my life.”

Though some of Rasenthenthran’s relatives see the tourism industry as harmful to her future, she goes forward each day with her mother’s blessing.

“My mother said that if I have the confidence in my mind, I can win over any inferiority complex so I can earn,” she says.

“I can be myself, even if I work in the hotel.”

Beating the Odds

On any given day, you can find 28-year-old Arumainayakam Sathiswaran crouched under, over, or beside any number of motorcycles in and around his shop in Vantharumollai.

A business owner is a business owner, even if he still suffers with multiple pieces of shrapnel in his body left over from the civil war.

He fled Trincomalee and came to Batticaloa as a refugee when he was 19-years-old, but was able to complete a mechanics course through WUSC and Sarvodaya in 2008. Despite all of the challenges he faced as a result of the war, he went on to start his shop in 2009.

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Even though he could have settled for being an employee in another shop, he noted the demand for motorcycle mechanics in Batticaloa and knew that demand would be attached to a good income.

Now he is set to take on 10 new employees through the ASSET project.

The war may have left Sathiswaran a member of the less than 9 percent of Sri Lankans living with a disability, but he sees life beyond that.

Such a perspective isn’t easy in a country like Sri Lanka.

The relatively low percentage of people living with disabilities in the country means that buildings and many forms of public transport remain largely inaccessible. In addition, there is widespread perception that those with disabilities are helpless at best and cursed at worst—mired in karmic debt from a past life and thus ineligible for marriage and unable to start a family.

Though well aware of the societal stigmas mounted against him, Sathiswaran credits his persistent self-confidence with enabling him to pursue his dreams.

“A lot of challenges I have faced, but with self-confidence and commitment I am able to work.”

Research on those living with disabilities in Sri Lanka continues to focus on the overwhelmingly negative attitudes that characterize this minority group. However, Sathiswaran says his experience in the automotive industry has been nothing but positive. He says that other people in his automotive mechanic course looked up to him because of what he was able to achieve despite his disability.

He says that a person with a disability who also holds a job is praised. Without employment, the perception becomes negative, because society sees such people as passing up opportunities.

Sathiswaran wants to continue to be a part of creating more of those opportunities in Sri Lanka.

He hopes that his example will encourage others living with disabilities to find employment and to do what they love.