Friday, November 23, 2012

10 Reasons to Visit Sri Lanka

Fri, 2012-11-23 03:18 — editor
By Imtiaz Muqbil
The historic transition towards an Asian Century is generating a treasure trove of both symbolic and real images of the shift from swords-to-plowshares. One of the most thought-provoking is the conversion of Sri Lanka’s former military headquarters in a prime location on the Colombo seafront into an area for mega-projects.
Once dotted with grim, heavily-fortified garrisons and gun barrels poking out from behind sandbags and camouflage netting, the entire area has been swept clean to make way for a massive seven star Shangri-La hotel. Its Hong Kong-based owning company, according to local media reports, has purchased six acres for US $75 million. The remaining four acres are also up for sale to other investors. The Sri Lankan government, according to the reports, hopes to earn revenue of US$125 million on land sales alone.
For the tourism industry, this is ample proof of tourism’s contribution to the peace dividend.
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s most strategically located and tourism-friendly countries, with an highly literate workforce and an ancient history. The 2009 termination of a murderous 30-year civil war has paved the way for economic rehabilitation and national reconciliation, with tourism playing a potentially lead role in both strategies. The devastation caused by the December 2004 tsunami made Sri Lanka the victim of a double-whammy – hit by both natural and man-made disasters. The ups and downs of the global economy were making it even more difficult to chart a future development plan.
Today, proving the strength of democracy in the country, a vigorous debate is under way about the best way of shoring democratic institutions with checks and balance mechanisms, eliminating corruption, narrowing the rich-poor income gap and ensuring justice, religious and ethnic harmony, amongst many others.
In the midst of this, the positive changes are unmistakable. The once-ubiquitous security checkpoints are gone, especially in and around Colombo airport. Shops, restaurants and offices are abuzz with activity. Colombo city, Galle and Negombo (all three of which I visited), and many other cities, are free of garbage, cigarette butts and eyesore posters. Weekday traffic is devastatingly bad in Colombo, but that is yet another indicator of “normalcy”. The national mood barometer rises and falls in relation to the fortunes of its cricket team. It fell when the country lost the 20-20 Cricket World cup competition to the West Indies last October and rose again when it demolished New Zealand in the first Test in Galle last week.
And yes, tourism is booming again. According to the latest figures posted on the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority website, visitor arrivals in Jan-Oct 2012 totalled 774,151, up 16% over 667,569 arrivals in the same period of 2011. In 2013, average monthly arrivals are sure to cross 100,000. The official target according to the National Tourism Development Strategy 2011-16 is for 2.5 million arrivals by 2015. Tourism has been identified as major contributor to the nation-building promise.
Here are 10 reasons to make Sri Lanka the next stop of a leisure or special interest holiday or MICE event.
1. Grow the Asian Century: Every visit to the country contributes to the emergence of an Asian century. In many parts of Asia, (Myanmar, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and others) a major search is under way for the best socio-economic-political models to build peace, justice, reconciliation and prosperity. With the end of the conflict, the public sense of pessimism, gloom and despair has lifted. Hope for a better future has brought a more optimistic look to people’s faces. Certainly, social and personal problems plague every society but nothing is stopping ordinary people from pursuing self-improvement, education and entrepreneurship. For the first time in years, they see light at the end of the tunnel.
2. Peacebuilding:The local newspapers are full of the ups and downs of the problems of peace- and nation-rebuilding. But one very valuable lesson Sri Lankans have learnt well is that playing ethnic card and dividing societies along racial lines is a lose-lose proposition. The country’s multi-cultural, multi-racial society is its best asset in a globalised world, and goes to the heart of its tourism promotion message. Every effort is being made to prevent a resurgence of the deadly, divisive, multi-headed hydra that so devastated the country. Politicians of many other Asian countries need to take note.
3. Job creation: No industry creates more jobs more quickly than tourism. The Shangri-La group is one of many investors flocking to avail of new opportunities. Jetwing, one of the largest hotel and travel groups, is opening a number of fabulous new hotels such as the Jetwing Lagoon, near Negombo. More hotels are coming up as investors take advantage of fast-track investment facilities. These are creating hundreds of new jobs.
4. Infrastructure development: The completion of an 116-kilometre highway from Colombo to the southern port and resort city of Galle has cut travelling time from nearly four hours to about 90 minutes. Infrastructure funds are coming in from international banks and finance groups such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Much money will also pour into the former Tamil Tiger strongholds in the North where the poverty levels are highest.
5. English widely spoken: Ease of communications is a primary by-product of the high literacy rate and one of the fringe-benefit legacies of British colonialism. For tourists, asking for directions and talking to hotel staff is easy. So is reading the newspapers, watching TV and conversing with people on the streets. Those who want to take a deeper look at the country, behind the superficial tourist literature, can easily do so.
6. Visas improved: Of the many policy measures implemented to boost tourism, this is by far the best. Although citizens of most Western countries don’t need visas to come to Sri Lanka, citizens of many key Asian markets do. However, the process has been vastly simplified via an online visa application that generates a response from the Department of Immigration & Emigration within hours. Upon arrival, a QR code sticker is pasted in the passport. Upon departure, this is simply scanned again. It took me less than 30 seconds to pass immigration.
7. Variety of destinations: From culture to beaches to rainforests and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, Sri Lanka offers a mind-boggling variety of destinations to suit just about every demographic profile, budget and market niche except winter holidays. As a ratio of small area and population, it boasts the highest number of UNESCO heritage sites – six cultural and two natural. Buddhist pilgrimage traffic is already running high to holy spots such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
8. Great product development: Ayurveda and herbal treatments are only the tip of the iceberg. A new generation of world-class products are emerging, incorporating the best of new designs, eco-friendliness and technology. Training facilities are also on the rise. Cruise ships are set to step up their calls. Conferences will enjoy getting a motivational talk from some of the world’s best cricketers. And students in non-English speaking countries will find Sri Lanka an excellent place to learn English.
9. More airline access: As an island-nation, Sri Lanka is almost entirely dependent on aviation for visitor arrivals. The country is served by a broad range of airlines, including Gulf carriers, low cost airlines and the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines.
10. Relatively low costs: The exchange rate is 129 rupees to the dollar and you can get a pretty good meal for 450 rupees, which is less than US$4. Costs of getting around and shopping are insignificant. The entrance charge to the national museum was 500 rupees. One area that will benefit substantially from increased tourism is the handicraft and jewellery sector. Both are relatively inexpensive, but need demand to grow in order to boost diversity and creativity. It will be a huge blessing for the rural areas and low income people.
Sri Lanka is one of the best “value for money” destinations in Asia today. If a politically peaceful, economically prosperous and environmental sustainable society can be made to emerge by drawing upon the country’s ancient wisdom, historic heritage and contemporary knowledge, it can have a positive ripple effect across Asia. The “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” can be best described as undergoing a long period of convalescence following some heavy-duty surgery to remove a festering cancer. As long as no post-operative complications set in, the “patient” can, and should, make a full recovery fairly soon. An influx of visitor arrivals can certainly provide some nourishment.
This writer, Imtiaz Muqbil, visited Sri Lanka between Nov 16-21. He is Editor of Travel Impact Newswire and is a much respected as a travel industry analyst, in the perspective of global politics and issues of war and peace. Imtiaz is a personal friend whom I have known for 35 years. He is based in Bangkok -- Lakshman Ratnapala
- Asian Tribune -

New crackdown on refugees

Date: November 22, 2012

Michelle Grattan, Bianca Hall

THE federal government has announced it will keep refugees who have been processed onshore in limbo - without the right to work and at risk of being sent to an offshore centre at any time - in a tough new attempt to attack the people-smuggling trade.
The indefinite bridging visas - which will apply to arrivals after the August 13 announcement of offshore processing - will put refugees on the same basis regardless of whether they are processed in Australia or on Nauru or Manus Island.
The visas are just a step short of the Howard government's harsh temporary protection visa system - under which refugees could be returned to their home countries if conditions allowed.

The fresh crackdown follows a continued big inflow of asylum seekers - more than 7500 since August 13 - with no sign that offshore processing is acting as a deterrent.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen conceded that, given the numbers, it would not be possible to transfer all of them to Nauru or Manus Island.
Under an extension of the ''no advantage'' test, Mr Bowen said these people - who will be housed in the community - would not get permanent visas until they had waited as long as if processed offshore. The wait on bridging visas could be as long as five years, he said.
In other actions, the government has transferred the first asylum seekers to Manus Island - seven Sri Lankan and Iranian families including four children, the youngest aged 10 - and announced an expansion of accommodation on the Australian mainland to cope with the numbers.
Capacity at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation will be increased by 300 places and the Pontville site near Hobart will be re-opened.
Amid hunger strikes and self-harm by asylum seekers on Nauru and searing criticism by Amnesty International of their conditions, Mr Bowen said processing of claims there was expected to fully begin early next year. He said that if Amnesty had constructive suggestions ''we will listen to them, but they have a fundamentally different approach''.
Specialised children's services on Manus Island will be provided by Save the Children, including child protection and education activities.
Meanwhile, another 100 Sri Lankan men were sent home on Wednesday, bringing to 426 the number of Sri Lankans returned involuntarily since August 13. When voluntary returns are included, 525 Sri Lankans have gone back. There has been a spike in those coming from Sri Lanka and the government says many are driven by economic reasons rather than the fear of persecution.
Mr Bowen said that people processed in the Australian community and put on to bridging visas ''will have no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance''. A single man will get a basic payment of 89 per cent of the lowest Centrelink payment - about $438 a fortnight - plus 89 per cent of rent assistance, or a maximum $107.69 a fortnight.
''It's not a generous allocation, but it's an appropriate allocation that means that they can, obviously, provide for the basic needs that they have,'' Mr Bowen said.
He said ''no one should doubt this government's resolve to breaking the people smugglers' business model and save lives at sea''.
The Coalition and the Greens combined in the Senate on Wednesday night to disallow a government regulation that would have enabled public servants to roll over bridging visas rather than having to go back to the minister for renewal.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the government ''just hands out welfare and entry permits to people who come on boats now''.
He slammed the government's failure to set up permanent facilities on Nauru. ''The government has not even laid a slab,'' he said. Mr Bowen said a contract has been signed for work on the permanent facilities on Nauru.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who is committed to even tougher policies including temporary protection visas, dismissed Amnesty's criticism of conditions on Nauru. ''People who come illegally to this country can't expect to be treated like they're staying in a four-star or a five-star hotel,'' he said.
Greens leader Christine Milne accused Mr Bowen of ''an appalling shift back to even worse and more extreme'' treatment of people than John Howard's approach.
Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said the government was ''tying itself in knots'' to make the no-advantage test work.
Amnesty International campaigns director Andrew Beswick said: "This milestone marks yet another attempt by the federal government to create an elaborate plan to punish vulnerable people for seeking safety and protection and squibs our responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention.''
Pamela Curr, of Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said Labor was ''winding back everything they stood for while they were in opposition''.

Forced returns of 'sham refugees' as Sri Lankans deported

  • by: Dennis Shanahan, Political editor | From: The Australian
  • November 23, 2012 12:00AM

ILLEGAL immigrants from Sri Lanka who are not claiming to be refugees but are overwhelming the detention system are being targeted for forced returns, some within 48 hours of arrival.
The Gillard government's new focus includes regular forced returns of Sri Lankans to their home country, Australian Federal Police working in Sri Lanka to target people-smugglers, quickly classifying illegal arrivals as economic migrants, refusing "reintegration assistance" for those forcibly returned and sending the most recent arrivals to Nauru and Manus Island.
In the three months since the government announced its policy of putting asylum-seekers in detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for five years, more than 3500 Sri Lankans have arrived illegally by boat, with most not being from the Tamil minority that lost the civil war three years ago. In all, 7868 asylum-seekers have arrived since the August 13 announcement.
While asylum-seekers from Pakistan and Afghanistan have dropped off markedly since August 13, Sri Lankan "economic migrants" have almost doubled, swamping detention and offshore processing centres on Christmas Island, Nauru and the reopened Manus Island in PNG.
Tony Abbott has responded to the government's failure on offshore processing by declaring the Coalition will not agree to the government's plan to expand the humanitarian refugee intake.
In a policy and budget cut promise to be given in a speech today, the Opposition Leader says: "If elected . . . the Coalition will save around $1.3 billion over the forward estimates by not proceeding with the government's plan to increase the level of Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,750 a year to 20,000.
"The Coalition will always support a generous humanitarian program. However, it should not be expanded while the government cannot afford to pay for it."
Mr Abbott said the government had made it clear that increasing the size of the humanitarian program would not stop the boats.
Analysis of boat arrival nationalities, obtained by The Australian, reveals that in January there were no arrivals from Sri Lanka, but since April, when about 100 arrived, the Sri Lankan total has jumped every month to a peak last month of more than 1200.
In the same period the number of Pakistani arrivals has dropped from 100 in August to just 10 this month, while Afghan asylum-seekers are down from 360 in August to 100 last month. The number of Iranians has remained steady at about 420 and Iraqi arrivals have doubled to just over 200 last month although they are well down so far this month.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who announced yesterday the forced return of 40 Sri Lankan men, said the government would "continue to return people to Sri Lanka" and "transfer people to Nauru and Manus Island".
In a reference to Sri Lankans who were not seeking refugee status on the basis of being part of a persecuted Tamil minority after the end of the civil war in 2009, Mr Bowen said: "We will continue to return people where they do not engage Australia's international obligations."
Government sources told The Australian that most of the Sri Lankan illegal boat arrivals were not Tamils but economic refugees who were not seeking refugee status.
Mr Bowen acknowledged the "big increase" in Sri Lankan arrivals and said the government would "immediately return anybody who does not have a credible asylum claim, which we've been doing".
The involuntary return of 40 Sri Lankan men yesterday by plane took to 466 the number of Sri Lankans who had been sent home since August.
Mr Bowen said the Greens' claim that their policy of expanding the humanitarian intake to 20,000 without a deterrent effect would cut the number of boat arrivals was wrong.
In his speech, Mr Abbott cites Mr Bowen's remarks to support the Coalition's decision to limit the humanitarian intake to 13,750 as part of a plan to save $1.3 billion over the budget estimates.
"Over the coming months, the Coalition will release a series of savings measures that will demonstrate our strong commitment to fixing Labor's budget mess," Mr Abbott will say.
"Restoring control to our borders through putting in place the proven Howard policies will also deliver significant savings to the budget. Each boat arrival costs the taxpayer more than $12 million."
The Opposition Leader will say that the Coalition has a "proud record of supporting those most in need".
"Under the Howard government, the humanitarian intake was expanded to over 13,000 places, making it one of the most generous humanitarian programs in the world," Mr Abbott's prepared speech says.
"Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, there have been more than 30,000 illegal arrivals. This means that, to a large extent, the management of the humanitarian program has been outsourced to the people-smugglers.
"If elected, the Coalition will again refocus Australia's refugee and humanitarian program to give priority to genuine refugees applying offshore.
"Under the Coalition, a minimum of 11,000 places of the 13,750 places for the refugee and humanitarian program will be reserved for offshore applicants.
"This will reverse the trend under Labor where the number of places available for offshore refugee and humanitarian entrants fell to 6718 places in 2011-12."

Sinhalese coming in search of work

  • by: BRENDAN NICHOLSON  | From: The Australian
  • November 23, 2012 12:00AM
OVER the years, Australia has given sanctuary to thousands of Sri Lankans fleeing a vicious civil war, but most arriving in the past six months have openly admitted to immigration officials that they come seeking work.
Of more than 12,000 asylum-seekers who have come to Australia by boat in the past six months, about 4000 have come from Sri Lanka.
Most of them are young men and appear to have accepted people-smugglers' assurances that they will find work in Australia.
A high proportion of those coming to Australia by boat from Sri Lanka now were Sinhalese.
Many are fishermen and the vast majority do not claim to be anything but economic refugees.
Refugee advocates said just because asylum-seekers were not Tamils did not mean they were safe in Sri Lanka.
While the bulk of the Sri Lankans seeking asylum over the years had been Tamils, they also included members of other groups, including journalists and civil rights activists, who'd spoken out against the government, the advocates said.
The Sri Lankan government's position is straightforward.
According to Sri Lankan high commissioner to Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, no one in his country faces danger from the authorities and so none of those who came to Australia were genuine refugees.
They were, said Admiral Samarasinghe, "economic opportunists".
Many of those coming were victims of people-smugglers, Admiral Samaasinghe said. "They believe that if you get into a boat you are an Australian citizen."
Those asylum-seekers who return home voluntarily are generally entitled to grants of up to $3000 to help them resettle in Sri Lanka or set up businesses there.
That is designed to lessen the likelihood that they will be coerced by the smuggling gangs to make a return trip to Australia to earn enough to repay their "fares".
Those flown home involuntarily after having asylum applications rejected are not entitled to this financial support.