It’s the worst financial crisis for Sri Lanka in some 70 years: the Indian Ocean nation’s own prime minister admitted the country was “bankrupt” last year, and the government in principle has secured a $2.9bn International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.
But creditors--amongst the country’s biggest, China--first have to agree on restructuring. As AP reported on Wednesday: “China has offered a two-year suspension of repayments but balked at reducing the amount owed. That is an obstacle to obtaining an emergency loan from the IMF, which wants creditors to agree to debt reductions.”
Nevertheless, Ambassador Asirwatham is optimistic. “We are confident that we will come through,” but it’s a time for the country to also “reform and refocus,” she adds, some of the measures of which “are harsh and painful, but we’re compelled to do it, in the interest of reviving the economy, helping people in the long term…”
She adds that the country needs to focus on the next generations, even it has to make sacrifices in the shorter term, but it’s aiming to be a developed country. Already active in global efforts to mitigate climate change and contesting to stop marine pollution, “we are trying to increase investments in renewable energy and smart green cities, green transport. These concepts are being studied and being presented to foreign investors,” she adds. “Whatever we do now will take us through to a 2048 where the current president dreams of creating a constructive, productive, very prosperous country.”
Tourism, exports impacted
Of course, the economic crisis didn’t spring up overnight. The ambassador explains that already for some three decades prior, the country had been greatly impacted by tariffs. There were economic shocks. The 2004 tsunami, which took over 30,000 lives and took a further toll on the economy. The Easter Sunday terror attacks cut annual tourism by at least 20%. And then, of course, there was the covid-19 pandemic.
“Towards the end of 2019, we were getting tourists again. It was a blessing for us,” the ambassador adds. “But then the pandemic started, and in 2020 January we [had] the first patient in Sri Lanka and immediately the government closed their books for one year, and that brought the tourism income to zero. Tourism is the third largest foreign income earner in the country; it became zero. And then our exports were also affected because the purchasing capacity was also reduced in in other countries.”
Sri Lanka’s main exports are textiles and garments and tea, plus spices, gemstones, rubber and other foodstuff. A country with eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, it has previously topped travel lists for its rich biodiversity-- both on land and under water--its unique festivals, Ayurvedic hotspots, old-world charm, teas and spices and more.
“Tourism is picking up, and last year I would say close to 800,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka, despite the internal crisis, protests and shortage of food and fuel. This January alone, over 100,000 tourists have visited and we had to operationalise another airport to bring charter flights in Hambantota,” she adds.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also impacted the country not just in terms of energy, but also in terms of tourism. “After the covid situation, Ukrainians and Russians came in large numbers to Sri Lanka. And after the conflict, it went down,” the ambassador adds.
Ambassador Asirwatham hopes more Luxembourgers will take note of Sri Lanka as a travel destination. But there’s also work underway to further foster bilateral relations in light of this year marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations. While she says it’s not easy to pinpoint exports specificially to Luxembourg, as European companies may buy in bulk and then distribute to various countries, business may just be picking up.
“There's big potential for us to expand and diversify our products to Luxembourg,” the ambassador explains. “After my arrival, we negotiated an MOU between the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce and Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka; the text is finalised, and they're going to sign it very soon.”
There are currently around 75 Sri Lankans in the grand duchy, some of whom will be taking part in its national day celebration taking place on 22 February. This year marks 75 years of independence for the teardrop island, and the festivities will include music, a brief ceremony, Sri Lankan food and more. The ambassador says that this year’s themes around the celebration are unity, the blue and green economy, including becoming more of an export country, and mitigating climate change.