Sri Lanka has pinned its hopes on Chinese visitors to boost the island nation's flagging tourism industry, which has been badly hit by years of civil war and the global financial crisis.
Milinda Moragoda, minister of tourism for Sri Lanka, identified China as the main market for his country when he flew in to meet with Shao Qiwei, director of the China National Tourism Administration.
"China holds the key to our tourism development and further economic growth, particularly when the number of tourists from Europe and America is plunging during the financial crisis," he told China Daily.
Moragoda made China his first stop in a global tour to promote his country's tourism sector, explaining that China has a strong currency and "is a large market to develop in terms of overseas tourism".
Sri Lanka has suffered a dramatic fall in overseas tourists during the past few years, with most blaming fears over security.
Last year, only 500,000 visited the island, almost 11 percent fewer than in 2006, according to its tourism development authority, while figures for January this year show only 38,468 arrivals, a drop of 32.4 percent compared with the same period in 2008.
Sri Lanka has a rich religious and cultural heritage, as well as long coastlines, but although most of its popular sights are far from the violence of the civil war, bomb attacks on its capital Colombo have affected the country's tourism industry.
"We have always ensured visitors are safe in Sri Lanka and the conditions now are even more improved as the north and east, where conflicts used to occur, are under control," assured Moragoda.
And he added that, with the war coming to an end and China's economy remaining steady amid the economic slowdown, "it is time to reboot the tourism industry through close work with China".
There are already three direct flights from Beijing to Colombo, with authorities now in talks over more flights from other major cities in China, he said.
Sri Lankan Airlines has also started a holiday promotion by offering tickets for less than 6,000 yuan ($900).
Major Chinese travel agents have also been invited to work more closely with counterparts on the tropical island.
Liu Qi, a tour planner from the Beijing Youth Travel Service, said: "Sri Lanka is a nice resort with its tropical weather and coasts. The country is showing its confidence in boosting tourism and I hope numbers increase as the political situation stabilizes."
(China Daily March 23, 2009)