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DateLine Sunday, 1 April 2007

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Countering air strikes: improve trade, joint ventures and goodwill overseas

The March 27, 12.45am terrorist attack on the military air base in Katunayake has thus far not borne much impact on Sri Lanka's tourism industry. Regardless, the hospitality industry expects, immediate, intelligent, disciplined and stringent measures to plug a repetition of an attack, for, the losses to the industry, could be much.

Within hours, Colombo bound flights were diverted to Chennai and Trivandrum, but came back, the same morning. Cathay Pacific, which flies Hong Kong, Colombo, via Bangkok and Singapore, four times a week has suspended flights. Now, Emirates, does not fly to Colombo by night; altered flights' schedules to day light. The other flights arrive Colombo as usual. But, how many tourists will continue to come in, and for how long, is delicately perched on counter measures, the tourism trade said.

In the afterglow, a few bookings were cancelled. Most other bookings are being honoured for the present. But, the potential tourist into Sri Lanka is wary, and is watching the situation, the travel trade said.

Speaking for the industry, Ms Shiromal Cooray, managing director of Jetwing Travels called on the government to stall the $10 visa-fee, per tourist, as per the budget of 2007, expected to come into force 1 April later deferred for August. A visa levy would be a poor way of luring the tourist into a country, where the tangible security situation is overblown by the international media.

The most prestigious global television channels, CNN, BBC and ETV for instance, minutes after the attack on the military airport, reported that the Colombo international airport was bombed. True enough, that the military airport must be shifted from its adjacent location, to the international airport. Yet, terrorist land or air strikes have never targeted tourists in Sri Lanka.

Globally, such strategy, has been few and far between, instances being the unforgettable Egypt and Bali. Bali, was intended to hit Australian tourists, orchestrated by al-Quaeda.

When terrorists strike Thailand, the international media is more balanced, also showing the country's tourists browsing unconcerned. But, March 27, all the well-known international media showed in its continuing headlines, LTTE propaganda of its air capabilities and destruction to the Sri Lanka Air Force buildings and its personnel. Obviously, Colombo has no rapport with the international media.

The authorities must also accept its limited capabilities. For instance, over 60-years ago, during World War II, the day before the attack on Easter Sunday, the Colombo harbour had 100 ships, reduced to 40 when the enemy bombs rained on. The Japanese bombs fell simultaneously on the Ratmalana airport and the Colombo harbour. At the same time Royal Air Force planes took off from a new airstrip built at the Colombo Racecourse, and engaged the Japanese bombers in dog fights.

Colombo's residents were under tables, it is well known. The civilian death toll was 85 and 75 injured. Of 85 Japanese planes which flew in, 54 returned. Sri Lanka's losses were 19 fighters and six Swordfish. It is also common knowledge that the enemy's Japanese all-conquering progress was quelled.

Four days later, the Japanese came with 54 planes and assaulted Trincomalee and the attack to British shipping was greater this time. Fourteen Japanese planes were lost. The Japanese had had enough of Sri Lanka and never followed up the raids.

Another leaf can be taken from the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when the air power of 60-million Arabs was destroyed on the ground by the Israeli planes belonging to three-million Israelis; it being suicidal during an air attack to sleep a nation's air fleet.

If Sri Lanka's history is to repeat itself, and defeat the LTTE air power, the nation must also foster the friendship of the international community, the basic ingredients, besides government-to-governments foreign relations: commerce, tie-ups, technology interactions, goodwill and cultural exchanges.

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