by Leon Berenger
The travel industry is feeling the crunch of the government’s ban on pilgrim tours to Tamil Nadu where scores of pilgrims have been stoned by mobs.
Indian media reports have accused supporters of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jeyalalithaa Jeyaram, who is spearheading an anti-Sri Lanka campaign of carrying out the attacks. However, in Colombo, the Deputy External Affairs Minister, Neomal Perera has accused Tiger guerrilla groups.
The attack on a bus convoy transporting about 172 Catholic pilgrims including women, children and toddlers, came barely a day after the Sri Lankan government issued an advisory against travel to India owing to sporadic anti-Sri Lankan episodes. Some officials in the travel industry believe the move is counter-productive.
Over the past eight months there have been about 20 incidents targeting Sri Lankans visiting South Indian destinations. The Sri Lankans included pilgrims, sports persons, students, academics, politicians, traders and even those seeking medical treatment, officials said.
Tuesday’s incident was the most serious and it drew condemnation from a wide sector including the central government in New Delhi and Amnesty International (AI).
Meanwhile, Colombo has planned to launch a diplomatic offensive to calm the simmering tension.Delhi for its part has assured fullest security for Sri Lankans visiting South India, which is the hot spot for the incidents but many in the travel industry feel that the damage has already been done and that the government was partly to blame for diplomatic bungling leading to the present crisis.
Sanasa Travels Managing Director Wasantha Silva said that pilgrim bookings had dropped but it was too early to estimate the exact losses.”We handle between 600 to 800 India-bound pilgrims annually and right now we are in the middle of the peak season for Buddhists travelling to the north of that country through Chennai.
“The problem is only in the South of India, we have no issues elsewhere. The Chennai sector is for budget travellers who travel by road to the north to cut down on the expenses. Those who can afford board a direct flight to the north,” Mr. Silva said.
The problem however he added was that the bulk of the pilgrims use the Chennai sector, therefore they believe there will be a large number of cancellations in the next few days.
His views were shared by Director Outbound Tours with Jetwing Travels, Sunil Peiris, who said that more diplomacy should be asserted and frowned on the Indian travel advisory saying it was ill-timed and not appropriate.
Mr. Peiris said there will definitely be a drop in outbound traffic for India, mainly in the south until matters are sorted out between the two capitals and the sooner it is done the better for all stake holders in the industry.
He also called for a mandatory insurance cover for those visiting India as pilgrims. “If an individual is prepared to pay something like Rs. 100,000 for a four-day pilgrimage then an insurance cover of Rs. 3,000 should not be an issue,” Mr. Peiris, also the former Chairman of SriLankan Airlines pointed out.
Apart from the present turbulence, several pilgrims have died earlier while on tour due to extreme weather conditions in the north of India during this period and this complicates matters for tour operators, he said.However the situation is different for Business Development Director Natasha Peiris with Gabo Travels and Priyantha Adhikari the General Manager for People’s Travels as they did not deal with the Chennai sector.
“All our outbound traffic is by direct flight between Colombo and Delhi therefore we are not affected,” they said, adding that they hoped such incidents would not spread to other parts of India as well.
In the meantime, Sarath Dissanayake with the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) defended the travel advisory, saying it was appropriate owing to the sudden increase in anti-Sri Lankan incidents mainly in the southern part of India, home to some 60 million Tamils.
He said the advisory was issued for the safety of Lankans travelling to that country and it will be toned down or removed when the situation returns to normal, adding that various diplomatic efforts were underway to address the issue.
Apart from that Colombo is in constant contact with the Sri Lankan Missions both in Delhi and Chennai and the ground situation is being carefully monitored at all times, he added.
Pettah traders on protest march
In the backdrop of the attacks that took place in Tamil Nadu around 500 Pettah traders on Thursday (6) staged a protest march to the Indian High Commission in Colombo and handed over a petition to High Commissioner Ashok K. Kantha.
The traders marched from Galle Face to the Indian High Commission carrying placards condemning the attacks.
The petition drew attention to the fact that attacks on Sri Lankans will only create unrest among people who live here and will strain relations between people of the two countries.
P. Thiyalingam, one of the traders who participated in the protest said that the problem has been created by political parties and there were no problems among the people of the two countries. The petition was addressed to the President of India, the Prime Minister of India, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and DMK President M. Karunanidhi.
100,000 Lankans travel to India monthly- SriLankan Airlines
An estimated 100,000 Sri Lankans travel to Indian destinations each month and the bulk of the traffic is handled by SriLankan Airlines.�Some 72, 735 went via SriLankan to South Indian destinations such as Chennai, Trivandrum,Trichi and Kochi in July, Media Manager Deepal Perera said.
He added that thousands of other passengers too travel by Mihin Lanka.”As of now there has been no drop in bookings and the airline is carrying out operations as usual,” he added.
However, an actual figure of the number of Sri lankans visiting India on a daily or monthly basis was not available.
Immigration and Emigration Chief, Chulananda Perera said that the Department does not maintain records of a particular sector adding that all departures are combined into one group.
Jayalalithaa on war path
The continuing anti-Sri Lankan activities are being led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jayalalithaa, backed by other radicals who accuse Colombo of killing thousands of Tamil civilians during the last stages of fighting between the security forces and the LTTE three years ago.
Prior to Tuesday’s attack on pilgrims two Sri Lankan school soccer teams were booted out of Chennai in the middle of their tour on the orders of Jayalalithaa who later went on to interdict a local official for providing the stadium.The teams were from Royal College, Colombo and Hilborn Private College, Ratnapura.
The Chief Minister has also called on Delhi to halt the training of Sri Lankan security force personnel in various Indian institutes, charging that Colombo was moving close to China and this could pose a regional threat to India. Delhi has refused to comply with the demands saying that the two countries were friendly neighbours and that it should remain that way.
AI Indian Chief urges safety of Lankans
India’s Amnesty International Chief Executive G. Ananthapadmanabhan issued a statement on Thursday (6) condemning the attacks on Sri Lankans and urging the Tamil Nadu Government to protect SriLankans visiting or living in the State.
“The authorities in Tamil Nadu must immediately put in place measures to ensure the safety of Sri Lankans visiting and living in India. They must promptly launch investigations into the attacks, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice in fair trials,” he added.
“Political parties in Tamil Nadu are understandably concerned about continuing human rights violations in Sri Lanka.”
“However, these concerns must not be translated into acts of violence targeting pilgrims and other visitors from Sri Lanka. Every visitor to Tamil Nadu must beable to enjoy the right to freedom of movement, religion and expression, as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Mr. Ananthapadmanabhan added courtesy: Sunday Times