Tea for tourists and sympathy for tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka

The Asian tsunamis washed away much of what drew foreigners to Sri Lanka’s beaches, but a coastal tea plantation reputed for making the world’s most expensive tea has survived to become an oasis for tourists. The usual attractions — turtle hatcheries, marine museums, souvenir shops and fishermen on stilts — vanished in the December 26 sea surge that destroyed much of the coastal infrastructure.

Swiss tourist Nina Baer, 58, said she was left only with a towel when the tsunamis devastated the hotel where she was staying along the southwestern coast and was helped by local residents.

Recently, she joined the only excursion available here these days — a half day trip to Handunugoda tea plantation for tea tasting and seeing the world’s most expensive tea at close quarters.

“Sometimes you wonder if you can be treated like a queen and enjoy a holiday while people are suffering,” explained Baer, who said she chose to stay back and help devastated villagers and had already collected 60,000 euros (about US$ 77,000) to buy boats for fishermen who lost their gear.

“But, you realise the locals want you to stay. If you go, they lose their jobs.”

The Handunugoda tea plantation, which has revived a centuries-old Chinese tradition of making tea for emperors, is seeing fewer foreigners.

The plantation is the world’s closest to the sea — less than a mile from the Indian Ocean at an elevation of just 100 feet (30 meters). In some areas of southern Sri Lanka, the sea destroyed homes more than a mile inland.

Yet, while the exotic tea plantation escaped the sea surge, all of its 200 employees had at least a friend or a relative among the nearly 31,000 people killed in the catastrophe.

“For a few days we could not work because everyone here had someone in the family affected,” said Handunugoda chief, Malinga Herman Gunaratne, 60, while guiding German and Swiss tourists through his picture-postcard plantation.

“We used to have 50 to 100 tourists visit the plantation before the tsunami and the numbers immediately fell soon after,” Gunaratne said.

“But we see them coming back. They all say that they want to help the country by coming here as tourists.”

A truck pulled out of the factory carrying relief supplies — dry rations, tinned food and clothing — for survivors. The donations are from visitors here.

The exotic tea plantation is one of the few tourist attractions left in southern Sri Lanka and the few hotels that are still in business send their guests to walk through the 200-acre property.

The main attraction here is the “Kilburn Imperial,” frequently described as the Rolls Royce of tea.

The “white tea” — originally made for finicky emperors who did not want anyone touching their brew — sells for US$ 1,500 a kilo (2.2 pounds).

German holiday maker Monika Erben, visiting the tea plantation Saturday, was among the first group of visitors to tour the region through Neue Wege, a German operator specialising in Yoga and Ayurveda tourism.

“We had seen the destruction on television screen and were quite surprised to see how quickly it had all been cleared,” Erben said. “Some others dropped out of the tour, but we felt we should go and help these people.

“It is easier to cancel (the holiday here) and courageous to go ahead,” Erben said while sipping tea at a colonial-style bungalow of the Handunugoda tea estate.

She said she decided to tour the plantation as a way to help local people.

“The local people need tourism for their livelihoods and the best we can help them is to come here.”

Tourism contributes about two percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP, but a large number of people are indirectly employed by the industry making it one of the key sectors of the island’s economy which is still dependent on tea, the main export commodity.- AFP