OPINION: The Sri Lankan tourist industry’s ignorance of the North starts at the top

By Jekhan Aruliah

I must first congratulate the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority (SLTDA) before I criticise it. Just a few days after the publication of my article in June 2018 complaining their “Sri Lanka Tourist Attractions” map showed nothing in the Northern Province other than Jaffna’s airport, the SLTDA replaced that barren old map.

The new July 2018 map, shown above next to the June 2018 one, shows a definite pink sprinkle of “tourist attraction” dots in the far North. This is better than the old map that showed nothing except Jaffna’s airport.

Disappointingly, when I took a closer look at the map the Jaffna Mainland’s sights DID NOT include the Nallur Temple nor the Jaffna Fort! For the SLTDA’s map to forget both these iconic Jaffna sights is a sign of great carelessness borne presumably out of innocent ignorance. An ignorance that is unbecoming of our country’s apex tourism authority, suggesting it itself hasn’t toured like a tourist in the North. Missing the Nallur Temple in Jaffna is like missing the Eiffel Tower in Paris or forgetting London’s Big Ben, Sydney’s Opera House and New York’s Empire State Building.

At the time of writing this article the SLTDA map showed distant Delft Island having the greatest number of attractions crediting it with 5 tourist highlights (including wild ponies and a very large tree) outnumbering the 4 tourist highlights it identified in the Jaffna Mainland. This sloppy attempt at showcasing Jaffna’s tourist attractions smacks of a quick Google before lunch of Peninsular sights ordered alphabetically. “D” for “Delft” getting alphabetic priority over “F” for “Fort”, “J” for “Jaffna” or “N” for “Nallur”.

I hope by the time you read this article the SLTDA will have fixed these omissions. But it is sadly typical that the Colombo based agencies only look North fleetingly, only when prodded to do so. And after only a fleeting glimpse North they turn back South.

To understand Delft Island’s unreadiness for tourism the SLTDA need only go to its own website and read its own description of the place:

“There are two ferry services per day. One in the morning and other one in the afternoon but it is advisable to check first before planning your trip. The schedule is subject to significant changes due to weather conditions and boat conditions. On arriving at the island there is only one bus available, go and go (sic) on the single road. It is probably advisable to hire a tractor that can take you on a more detailed route.”

Delft, which I have yet to visit, is doubtless a charming island. But to set it up as the pinnacle of Northern tourism, implying the rest of the North is downhill from there, is not doing us any favours.

So what does the SLTDA need to do? Suresh Murugaser, a Colombo based entrepreneur, said: “Personally, having been involved in the Tourism Industry for many decades in the past, I feel that the North is a magical place that needs to be put on the Sri Lanka Tourist Map. I think a first step should be for the SLTPB (Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board) to take local tour operators on  fact-finding missions, so that they can familiarise themselves with the product. Without that essential first step, nothing can be done.”

For me, being an optimistic pessimist searching for a silver lining, at least this new interactive map shows the SLTDA is trying fitfully to move in the right direction. One hopes the SLTDA will listen to people like Murugaser, and will commission some proper touristic exploring in the North. One hopes they will also seek suggestions from those who wish the North well to add to their map of Tourist Attractions. To start them off, here are some emailed responses I received to my earlier article:

“There are also some coral reefs in the north completely untouched by tourism. The coral reefs I’ve snorkelled in Hikkaduwa and Trincomalee are severely bleached due to the amount of tourist traffic. While the nature lover in me hopes for the northern reefs to be left alone, if approached in a environmentally conscious way the northern reefs have huge potential. In particular if local fishermen are involved, it could take advantage of their significant knowledge while addressing the ever present problem of over fishing via providing an alternate source of income.”

“The Jaffna fish market while not being as big as its southern counterparts, would still be fascinating for a foreign tourist who would never have seen sting rays drying or squid that has just been speared. A few eateries close to the fish market would do very well if there was enough interest in visiting the market itself”.

 

“You need a decent air service.  One indirect flight via Trinco a few times a week is not enough”. 

“You could do with a decent train service, including a proper sleeper carriage charging tourists enough to be a money making venture.  (After all they are saving a night in a hotel and will be happy to pay good money for a comfortable night on a train.)”

“I see many more advantages than disadvantages to re-establishing the Talaimannar-Rameshwaram ferry service.  It would breathe economic life into Mannar (where the economic situation is desperate).  A direct train link (which I understand is under construction?) from Mannar to Jaffna would help the north to benefit from the ferry traffic.”

“Casuarina beach is unique for the very reason that you could literally walk out 500 meters into the sea while never being more than chest high and facing the gentlest waves in all of Sri Lanka! Its basically a giant pool which doesn’t require a life guard. I can only imagine that would delight Sinhalese tourists (many of them can’t swim) that spend their time visiting southern beaches wishfully looking at the unfriendly water.”

“you need to get the guide books and tour companies on side – the majority of high end tourists are led by their noses by travel agents.”

“This excellent looking video is by Rupavahini. It’s in Sinhala so I don’t understand a word. It would be nice if English and Tamil versions were available. “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nuU5ZghWQY

“Hikkaduwe is one of the early tourist spots developed to promote tourism in the South. This is a good example of unplanned development. Today it’s a bad example for Sri Lanka. This place is mainly for drugs and all sorts of vices under the sun. Unless Jaffna develops tourism in a well planned way and attract high end tourists  who want clean beaches, good food , etc. etc. “

“The journey to KAYTS via the causeway during sunset – with the sky & sea merging is Magical— that’s Jaffna — an unpolished Gem”

“resume the suspended Jaffna-Tiruchirapalli airlink. Air Asia & Malindo has 3-4 flights daily-from Kuala Lumpur to Tiruchirapalli”

“Until we can write up a 4 day, 3 night programme for Jaffna including but not limited to a spa visit or two, a swim, snorkel or dive, a couple of good restaurants and bars in the night and some shopping, we have no chance of attracting a stream of tourists.”

I would encourage readers to add their suggestions in the Comments Section below this article.

Jekhan’s Suggested 4 Day Tour To The North Itinerary

Picking up on that last comment about the 4 day 3 night programme, here is an itinerary based on my own wanderings over the last couple of years.

In this itinerary I have assumed travel by car or privately hired coach. The timings assume travelling without getting lost or stuck in traffic. If you travel in a party of over 10 you can get extremely good deals in the posh hotels during low season which in the North seems to be most of the year! I have identified places I have enjoyed on my travels, omitting the many wonders I haven’t yet visited. By avoiding weekends and public holidays many of these activities will be less crowded, for example Casuarina Beach and the Nainativu boat trip.

Some will criticise me for blatant advertising in my recommendations below, but the time for pussyfooting is over and nobody had paid me for these endorsements. There are of course other good places, and other worse! And other good itineraries, and other worse! So don’t follow my itinerary just because I said so, but do come North!

Day 1: Travel from Colombo to Jaffna via Mannar

5.30am:                leave Colombo early to beat the traffic

10.30am:              Brunch in Anuradhapura

Mango Mango Restaurant. The times I have been it had good food and clean toilets https://goo.gl/maps/5R6cupi1Exs

1pm – 3.30pm:  Mannar:

Our Lady of Madhu Church https://goo.gl/maps/H5PYZ9oDqrQ2

Our Lady of Lourdes Church https://goo.gl/maps/d3kywyxG11p

Ketheeswaran Temple: https://goo.gl/maps/W2FHfdmCQM82

6pm: Arrive in Jaffna Town

Check into hotel

Day 2: Visit the Jaffna islands, and main Jaffna Town sights

9am – 12noon: Nainativu/Nagadeepa temples https://goo.gl/maps/F6oBWCuuoNk

It takes about 45 minutes to drive to the jetty from Jaffna Town. The scenery on this road trip is, in my opinion, a wonderful part of the excursion so pay attention during the drive! From the jetty there is a 20 minute trip in a boat, there and back not including waiting for the boat which departs approximately every half hour. Travellers should wear clothes and shoes appropriate for clambering in and out of the boat.

1pm: Coming back from Nainativu stop for lunch at Charty Beach, provided by Tilko Hotel at their premises on Charty Beach. https://goo.gl/maps/G36WUnuhQrn

This lunch should be ordered a day or so in advance, as Tilko caters from their main Jaffna hotel and drives the food here. Last time I was here they had no licence, so bring your own beer.

3pm: Return to hotel. Charty Beach is just 15 minutes drive from the Jaffna Town centre.

4pm: Visit some of the main sights in Town:

Nallur Temple https://goo.gl/maps/iMWq6EJkRTJ2. The temple opens early and closes around 12noon. It then reopens at around 4pm, closing again at around 8pm.

Jaffna Library. Note the library is closed on Mondays, and tourists are discouraged before 4.30pm, but it’s still worth seeing from the outside at any time.  https://goo.gl/maps/EbNvjDJdnru

Jaffna Fort, best visited during the cooler morning or late afternoon hours. https://goo.gl/maps/hG62B8S9jJm

6pm: Back to hotel

Day 3: Tour the Peninsula, and an evening of shopping

9am: Trip to North of the peninsula

Sangilliyan Minister’s House, as impressive as it is neglected. https://goo.gl/maps/ABJdbGdMASp

Point Pedro, close to the northernmost point of Sri Lanka https://goo.gl/maps/uTKHiGXrRcw

Kadurugoda ancient Buddhist stupas https://goo.gl/maps/rRuqvXnUhJT2

12noon: Lunch at Fort Hammenhiel Resort https://goo.gl/maps/tg83H7qHrbS2

Smartly served by Navy personnel dressed in civvies, decent food at very reasonable prices.

Great view of the fort from the restaurant, and the short trip for a boatload of people visiting the fort (I think up to 15 people) costs a flat Rs5,000/=.

2pm – 4pm: Casuarina Beach. https://goo.gl/maps/KMyupkmBBuL2

Relax on this beautiful beach on Karainagar Island. Best go on a weekday, as the beach can be very crowded on weekends. If you don’t like the hot Sun take a hat and stay in the water. Or go earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon. The beach officially closes at 6pm, when the lifeguards go off duty.

It takes about 45 minutes to drive back to Jaffna Town.

5pm: Walking in Jaffna Town, and shopping

6pm: Back to the hotel

Day 4: Return to Colombo

9am: Leave for Colombo returning via Elephant Pass

11am: Brunch in Vavuniya

I suggest the Ammachi food court in Vavuniya. You will find it hard to spend more than Rs250 on a good lunch with a fresh fruit juice. https://goo.gl/maps/rKNZTiGZKuE2

Ammachi is the Northern equivalent of the Hela Bojun food courts in the South, run by the Ministry of Agriculture. These food courts, each with 10-20 stalls, are dotted all over Sri Lanka. Each stall is run by a 2-3 person team of mainly women, who pay a small fee (couple of hundred rupees) for the stall for 6 hours, provide all their own ingredients and gas, and keep all the proceeds of their sales. Certainly a far better introduction to entrepreneurship for ordinary people than the many seminars offered by well shod consultants and YouTube evangelists.

5pm: Arrive in Colombo

Some of the Jaffna hotels I have liked:

Higher priced: Jetwings Jaffna; The Thinnai

Upper Medium priced: Tulasi Mahal (self catering); Valampuri

Medium priced: Green Grass; Tilco;

Some of the Jaffna restaurants I have liked:

Higher priced: Jetwings Jaffna; The Thinnai

Medium priced: Valampuri; Tilco; Mangoes; US Hotel

Lower priced: Nallur Bhavan; Ammachi

There are other higher and lower priced hotels, guesthouses and restaurants many of which have good reputations.

For the true budget experience, where you can stay in a basic but clean environment with clean tasty food for around US$10 a day, try the YMCA next to the Jaffna Kachcheri. It is conveniently located within half an hour walk from the town centre and twenty minutes walk from Jaffna Train Station. While I have never stayed there I have checked out the accommodation, and I eat breakfast there very often (Rs70 for two thosai/idli/roti with sambal and vegetable curries and a cup of tea). If you breakfast at the YMCA you will see the gamut of Jaffna humanity passing through from trishaw drivers and cops to school children to Kachcheri public servants. And every now and then you will see me. https://goo.gl/maps/tRS1YRdYYwC2

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )