Tourist arrivals from India and Britain are keeping Sri Lanka's tourist industry afloat amid war and hostile travel advisories from several Western countries.
Giant neighbour India as well as Britain, from which Sri Lanka got freedom in February 1948, accounted for over 40 percent of the 494,008 tourist arrivals in the scenic island nation in 2007.
India accounted for 21.4 percent of the arrivals and Britain 19 percent. With earnings over $410 million per year, tourism is the fourth largest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka.
India has been the top contributor from 2005. Indians outstripped Britons for the first time in 2005 with 113,323 arrivals out of a total of 549,308. India still is on the top with 106,067 arrivals, out of a total of 494,008, in 2007.
Unlike in the past, the Indian is welcome today in Sri Lanka.
"Indians stay in three-star to five-star hotels. And they do a lot of shopping, unlike Westerners. So the shops stand to gain from Indians. Indians don't drink, unlike the Europeans. The bars, therefore, make no money, but the restaurants, especially the Indian restaurants, do," S. Kalaiselvan, who heads the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (SLTB), explained to IANS.
He added: "Indians spend a lot on food. Indians also stay for a fair amount of time... 8.5 days being the average."
Restaurants serving north Indian food have mushroomed in Colombo. Star hotels now boast of Indian restaurants and organise regional Indian food festivals to cater to the palates of Indians.
The availability of flights to and from India is a major factor promoting travel. There are 125 flights per week. There are flights not only from Chennai and New Delhi but also from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Bodh Gaya in Bihar.
It was the peace which gripped Sri Lanka in 2002-04 that awakened the new Indian middle class to the existence of the picturesque country as a tourist-cum-business destination in place of Nepal and Thailand.
In 2000, arrivals from India were only 31,860, and the number swelled to 69,960 in 2002, when Colombo and the Tamil Tigers signed a ceasefire agreement.
The vast improvement in economic ties between India and Sri Lanka since the free trade agreement (FTA) became operational in 2000 has been a major factor in boosting arrivals from India.
For instance, in 2001, when the Tamil Tigers attacked and crippled Sri Lanka's only international airport, there was a fall in arrivals from the West including Britain. But arrivals from India went up.
A good chunk of tourists from India are businessmen. In 2006, 67.4 percent of all tourists came for "pleasure" and only 17.8 percent for business. But in the case of Indians, the proportion was 48.7 and 31 percent respectively.
With the FTA, business traffic from India galloped. What was only 31,851 arrivals in 2000 is today over 106,000, a three-fold increase. No other country has registered such high growth.
"The flow is two-way with 150,000 Sri Lankans going to India and 128,000 Indians coming to Sri Lanka annually. This makes the Indian routes profitable for the airlines," Kalaiselvan said.
With the tourist board vigorously promoting the 34 sites associated with the Ramayana in Sri Lanka, the flow from India is expected to increase. "In two years, we hope to double the arrivals from India to reach 200,000 per year," Kalaiselvan boasted.