We’ve come a long way since Negombo’s genuine Ayuwoban wished us long life, through tales of corruption and jealousy to stories of survival and resilience, philanthropy and good old fashioned kindness after the war and the tsunami transformed Sri Lanka’s fortunes in 2004. We’ve seen what tourism can do for a country like this, from cutting edge eco innovations in Jetwing hotels to the warmth of the Sri Lankan soul clearly visible in its staff. We’ve basked in the sublime colonial pampering at the Amangalla and witnessed its wide influence on Galle Fort’s emerging shopping and cafe economy. We’ve tasted some of the opportunities for gap year teens to help build new schools, teach English and train a new generation of back packers in what responsible travel can mean, and met some of the children whose lives they really have changed forever. Sri Lanka is a place where it’s not only possible for the tourist pound to help, but where it’s essential for its survival.
So after travelling almost the length of the west coast over the last three weeks, it’s sad to see how quickly that Sri Lankan smile has become replaced by surly customer service and lack of initiative at one of the gated hotels sprawling up the coast just south of Colombo. This is often the first or last stop for tourists flying in to the country, and for an increasing number of package tourists, the only hotels they’ll ever see in Sri Lanka. Watching the interplay between guests at Tangerine Beach and its disinterested reception staff while we waited for someone to sort our irritating online booking error, we felt like we were in a different country. it seemed we had landed in a small corner of Sri Lankan tourism where a pack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap philosophy could seriously threaten this brave new world. There was precious little smile, and Ayuwoban had been replaced by Good Morning through barely disguised gritted teeth and reluctant eye contact. As the sun rose higher above the coconut palms outside, we wondered what had happened here to cool what we’d seen everywhere else as the warmest of welcomes.
The broad smile and endearing chin wobble of Jetwing Blue’s Suchanditha, her pretty hands clasped in prayer position, echoed across the waves of the Indian Ocean. She had told me that children are taught to greet each other and their teachers with Ayubowan from the minute they start school, instilling a respect for each other which forms the very basis of Sri Lankan philosophy. It takes little to keep that spirit strong in the hospitality business where warmth and kindness are the foundations for guest satisfaction, where there are no problems, only solutions, where nothing is too much trouble – not because the staff are after a tip, but because they genuinely want you to enjoy your time in their country.
What happened to the school children who grew up greeting each other in prayer position, a little wobble of the head and a broad smile, who learned their English and went into the same business as Suchanditha and her colleagues just a few hundred kilometres down the beach? Tangerine hotels are wholly owned by another Sri Lankan family, the Ondaatjes, whose fortunes rose on the back of the German tourist, then the English and have now been fattened by the package tours from Eastern Europe. Around the pool, the chat about the seafood buffet is in Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, with the odd Mancunian smile lightening the sullen demands for more Lion beer and jumbo prawns. We’ve seen it all before; the newly moneyed the world over treat those with much less with the kind of disrespect that distances them from their own past. It’s the skit on class by the Two Ronnies and John Cleese, the story of racism, the spoils of capitalism unchecked by empathy, solidarity or plain old good manners.
According to the beach sellers, fenced off from these all-day sunbathers in a way we hadn’t seen on any other part of the coastline, this little corner of Sri Lankan has been a haven for the Eastern European tourist for four years now, time enough for the daily drudge of serving people who don’t say thank you to wipe away that lovely Sri Lankan smile. So when the early warning system sounded the alarm for another tsunami last week, we weren’t surprised to find the gates of Tangerine Beach Hotel opening only to let its panicking guests in to seek refuge on the top floor. For the tuk tuk drivers who had shown them around for a dollar or so, the tailors who had copied their designer clothes for a steal, the fishermen and restaurant owners who had fed them for less than they spend on a glossy magazine, there was no room at the inn. Why? Something to do with those fences perhaps? The broken glass preventing anyone scaling the 30 foot walls said it all.
When the last tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, the Amangalla Hotel in Galle had only been open for 11 days after three years of building what would become the former capital’s most sumptuous place to stay. Its guests are the super-rich and its service is based on being one step ahead of their every need. For the residents of Galle Fort, the three years had been full of suspicion; there had been rumours of a night club and a casino before a huge launch party for the entire community dispelled the myths; every resident of the Fort was invited in to eat, drink and look around the hotel and imagine how it would share its fortunes. It showed them that the kind of guest who would sit on its glorious verandah sipping a G&T and listening to soft Sri Lankan live music after a day of ayurvedic massage and private steam, sauna and plunge pool would, with an Ayubowan or two, soon be browsing around the shops and cafes that would be the foundation of a new economy. When the tsunami struck days later, the locals instinctively ran to the highest point of Galle Fort and through the doors of the Amangalla. The children and elderly were invited to sleep there until the wave had done its worst. No 30 foot high walls, broken glass or gates kept them out; on the contrary, the hotel probably saved many lives that day. Eight years on, we noticed the warmth and respect of the locals towards the tourists – all tourists in Galle Fort – a vital part of what is still a fragile economy.
In a predominantly Buddhist culture, it’s important to remember that Ayubowan wishes long life on all living things (including surly tourists), and is a reminder of the rules of responsible tourism. Sri Lanka is recovering well from the war and the tsunami; its early warning system this time was efficient and although the wave didn’t happen, it gave people time to get to higher ground in the event of another disaster. But if it succumbs to the bullying of the foreigner and forgets that what makes it different to other Asian countries, which sold out at the first sniff of the dollar, is the generosity of spirit behind its welcome, it may not live long at all, however many greetings it bestows on its tangerine tanned guests.