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India, Sri Lanka See Revival in Tourism - 2003-09-01

Tourism in India and Sri Lanka is reviving as war and threats of war in the two countries diminish. Tourism to India and Sri Lanka was given a boost by the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in East Asia, which led tourists to seek new holiday spots. But peace has been the bigger attraction.

Tourist traffic to India dried up last year when tension between India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir prompted fears of a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. But troops from the two countries returned to their barracks last October, and relations between the South Asian rivals are slowly, if unsteadily, improving.

As a result, says Subhash Goyal, president of the Confederation of Tourism Professionals, the Indian tourism sector is buoyant once again. "Suddenly the confidence is there that there is no war going to take place, and all those people who were sitting on the fence and undecided have now decided to come to India, and during the last month or so, we have seen a 16 percent increase in inbound tourism," he says.

Tourism professionals say they expect a jump of about 15 to 20 percent this year over the 2.5 million foreigners who have been visiting India annually. And it is not only foreigners who are visiting India's sights again.

More than 100,000 mostly domestic visitors thronged the Kashmir Valley this year, the highest number since a violent Muslim separatist insurgency scared tourists away from what was known as a Himalayan paradise.

The industry is keeping its fingers crossed after two terrorists bombs on August 25 hit India's main commercial city, Bombay, killing more than 50 people. But Mr. Goyal says the blasts do not seem to have scared visitors away. "Even the foreign tourists who were planning to come, there were hardly any cancellations… So I think the world is now ready and they are taking these isolated incidents in their stride."

Sri Lanka's tourist sector is similarly benefiting from a pause in that country's 20-year civil strife. Tourists had shunned the island nation after rebels known as the Tamil Tigers attacked the country's international airport in 2001. But a truce signed with the rebels last year has held, even if peace talks have been suspended, and the end of fighting has lured travelers back to the island nation's beaches and mountains.

Sri Lanka's Tourist Board says it expects nearly half-a-million visitors this year - the highest number in the last three years. It says the number of tourists in July was up 20 percent over last year.

Despite the increases tourism to South Asia is a mere trickle compared with visits to such countries as Thailand and Singapore. Tourism professionals advise India and Sri Lanka to improve their infrastructure, and adopt more aggressive marketing strategies.