Tsunami scared Sri Lankans plead with tourists to return soon

Fearful of a bleak economic future, tsunami scared Sri Lankans in this southern holiday resort village that was flattened by the killer sea surges are urging foreign tourists to return.

Nearly all the survivors here depend on foreign tourists who are lured by a coconut palm-studded surf beach and excellent diving.

Many of the locals earn enough during the peak season — right when Sunday’s calamity struck — to get by for the rest of year.

While the horror of recovering and identifying bodies goes on and relatives search for the missing, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans at the periphery of the tragedy are petrified.

Beach masseuse Banda, 36, is distraught.

"I’m going crazy thinking about what to do now," he said, ambling down the main beach.

"I have a family — my mother, two aunties and a brother who I need to help. If I don’t help my family, they are finished.

"When tourists don’t come, we have nothing to do. It’s not only me — everyone in this area."

Sri Lankan government officials claim that nearly 50 percent of the tourists have left the country in the last few days following Sunday’s tsunamis.

There were around 19,000 foreign tourists in the island when the sea surges killed nearly 29,000 people, including over 100 foreigners.

Ravindru Yuhathugoda was standing in the midday sun outside his electronics shop, still at a loss as to what he should do to start getting his life back together, and fretting that the tourists may not return.

"I can’t think," he told AFP.

"Now we are all just looking, looking, looking … I’m afraid. What are we going to do? Everyone has this problem. How are we going to live?" he said, holding an orange handkerchief over his face against the dust.

"Mostly people just aren’t here — they’re all dead."

Helen Kaeferstein has run the Hotel Blue Note for more than 20 years, which unlike many other beachside operations, withstood the tsunami’s onslaught, but had its contents largely ruined.

"All the people who live here, I don’t even know if they are alive and can reopen," she said, drying out salvaged furniture in the debris-strewn garden and shaking her head.

Many guesthouse owners spent big just before Christmas, anticipating a good season, she said. She’s hoping for a return to normal business in one to two years at best, but does not know how they’ll get by in the meantime.

"We have to have aid from the government in order to reopen," said H.W. Kularatehna, who owns a clothes shop that remains standing but was trashed by the sea, which lifted up fishing boats and dumped them outside his back door.

"All the people here earn money from tourists, even the fishermen. We’re helpless, hopeless, actually."

Some tourists however are confident that adventurous backpackers will be back as soon as a few weeks.

"We’ve spoken to friends who are still coming out in a month. If the beach is clean, and there is somewhere to stay and eat, they’ll come," said Briton Anna Betts, who is staying on to help with the daunting mop up.

"It will probably be more for independent travellers, who will want to come here because it won’t be full."

Linda Hutton, a 52-year-old New Zealander, agreed.

"One or two restaurants have been ticking over. And they’re doing a good job cleaning up. If people could come here and support them, it would be great."

Signs of normalcy despite the horror are already emerging, with a few restaurants selling warm beer and basic food.

Rupani Nanayakkara’s family-run restaurant has reopened its tables to patrons amid piles of water-damaged beach clothes piled high on chairs from its downstairs shop.

But the veneer of calm is fragile.

As an unseasonal storm rolled in the waves, Nanayakkara ran up to customers grasping her backpack.

"Excuse me, the waves are very high," she said, gesturing towards the surf, and getting ready to flee.

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