Arugam Bay is a happy town. Or should I say a hippy town? Surfers roam the streets and frequent small hotels run by locals. Everyone knows everyone else. Arugam Bay has remained largely unnoticed throughout the war. Now though, commercialization has begun to erode the idyllic charm of this once sleepy beach side town. The affects are still small, but the unmistakable smell of money is beginning to mix in with the heady tinge of brine in the air.
Sri Lankan airlines has started a flight there to coincide with the Surfing competition it is sponsoring, to be held at the end of the month. A flight costs Rs 13500 both ways, somewhat more than your standard budget airline fair to India. Though a bit on the expensive side, the flight cuts the travel time to the Bay by several hours. It takes only fifty minutes from take off at Kelaniya to landing at Arugam Bay.
The inaugural flight was on Wednesday (17) and I was one of three people on it. One of the others was a tourism operator simply going to check the flight out and the other a tourist. The plane can probably take about 20 people. And it got me thinking that perhaps Sri Lankan should re-think its marketing strategies and pricing mixes when it comes to their Air Taxis. Maybe if they reduced the price by a few thousand, mark it just above what it would cost in fuel to drive there. I’m sure they’d be able to bring in more passengers as a result. I of course traveled on company dosh.
On an aside, Sri Lankan has focused largely so far only on international tourists to market their domestic flights, I think they’re ignoring an increasingly wealthy emerging middle class looking to spend some disposable income on a good holiday.
As for the Bay itself, the locals are beginning to smell the opportunity. I went there two years ago, just after the war finished and in the preceding time there has been some heavy construction. Prices have also seen an upward shift, but not too much. The crowds that are drawn by Arugam Bay’s surfing opportunities are your typical backpackers, meaning that they are always looking to travel on a budget. They can stay put from anything between two weeks to six months in one place so expensive hotels aren’t really their most favorite thing.
Arugam Bay is not a resort town. It’s a place where you go and do stuff. Bringing in massive hotels with enclosed beaches that encourage visitors to spend their whole time within those walls will be a travesty of epic proportions. There’s just too much stuff to do here. You can cycle down to Panama. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can go all the way down to Kudumbigala, a monastery on the Eastern edge of Yala that was closed up during the war. Catch the Sunrise at Pottuvil point and check out dozens of postcard quality beaches. Run the risk of elephants chasing on you on the deserted roads after six p.m. Safari rides to Kumana are also an option.
Then there’s the surfing. Surfing remains largely untried by Sri Lankans, but not for people in Arugam Bay. Exposure to international, award winning surfers have left some locals with some serious skills. Lessons are available if you want to grab some. Arugam Bay has some ideal surf spots just for beginners and local instructors are more than helpful in teaching you the ropes. Surfing is a tough sport, and requires stamina and balance, just look at a surfer and you’ll understand. But it’s also heaps of fun. I was tumbling off the board more often than i managed to stand on it, but Nizam is a patient teacher and says after one hour i got the basics and should be able to take it up from here alone insha Allah.
The local economy thrives on tourism, since the operations are small in relation to each other, the money trickles down everywhere. From small surf shops to tiny supermarkets to tuk tuk stalls, restaurants and budget hotels, they all get a share of the pie. Invasion of large corporations and big hotels can only destroy this fragile structure and disenfranchise the locals, reducing them to street hawkers, massage peddlers and beach boys. While scale economies can bring in massive revenues and commercialized tourism promotions can increase visits, the risk that this will reduce Arugam Bay’s culture and lifestyle are high. Money always has its drawbacks.
I know some may disagree; they may perceive the generic Sri Lankan buldoze-it-all-and-replace-with-luxury tourism model fits any place. But it pays to have diversity, just look at Thailand, its got its posh beach resorts for the rich and lazy as well as the edgy, remote places for the cheap and adventurous.
Arugam Bay is small and beautiful. It’s not a social cesspit, there are no sex-shows or pimps. The healthy local community involvement acts as moral policing. It’d be nice to try and keep it this way.