WERAPITIYA, Sri Lanka — Tucked away behind a ridge, surrounded by lush mountains where 45 bird species chirp, is a luxury resort that sells peace of mind for about $900 a night.
The resort, Santani, opened in 2017 here in Sri Lanka, and quickly received a series of accolades for hotels and spas. Rooms spread across 50 acres were booked continuously, often by celebrities and business tycoons. The influx of jobs and cash transformed the nearby village. The owner purchased 70 additional acres and made plans for an expansion.
But those plans are now on hold and cancellations are piling up — at Santani and across Sri Lanka.
Last month, bombings on Easter Sunday at churches and at hotels popular with foreign tourists left more than 250 people dead. Britain, India, the United States and several other countries warned their citizens to stay away, citing the possibility of further attacks.
The immediate effect has been devastating for tourism, one of the main drivers of Sri Lanka’s economy. Since the end of a long civil war in 2009, the country has moved aggressively to build its tourism industry, promoting itself as having everything offered by top regional destinations like Thailand and Bali — ancient sites, beaches, wildlife — but without the crowds.
About 2.4 million tourists visited Sri Lanka last year, up from 500,000 in 2009. Those numbers were expected to only grow this year, with Lonely Planet listing Sri Lanka as the No. 1 destination for travel in 2019.
Sanath Ukwatte, president of the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, said that hotels that once had 70% occupancy are now 10% full at most.
“Everything is running at the moment, but without guests,” he said.
He estimated that losses this year could be as much as $1.5 billion.
Officials are scrambling to contain the fallout. The bombings were a one-time event, they say, and no different from recent attacks in Paris, Istanbul or London.
Hoteliers are lobbying the government for financial bailouts to keep the industry afloat. They have also increased security measures, with commandos guarding the entrance of luxury hotels in Colombo and, in some cases, using sniffer dogs to check vacated guest rooms.
Others are thinking of giving up.
Mark Maurice, owner of Bunky Monkey Hostels, a small property near the ocean in Colombo, said that all reservations for May had been canceled. Having opened his property only last year, he is considering closing, worried that the damage from the Easter attacks might be worse than that from the civil war.
“We knew which parts of the country were safe,” he said of the wartime years, when fighting was concentrated largely in the north and east. “But at this time, there is an uncertainty. It’s very hard to say how long these attacks will affect tourism.”
Villagers picking tea leaves at the Santani hotel estateImage: Adam Dean/The New York Times
The Santani resort is at least a four-hour drive from the coastal cities targeted in the attacks, but it, too, is feeling the effects. Seventy percent of May reservations were canceled within a week of the bombings.
For Vickum Nawagamuwage, owner of Santani, the fallout dredged up painful memories of the outbreak of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
His father operated a fleet of cars for tours around the island. As the number of visitors dwindled in the face of rising violence, he laid off drivers and eventually closed the business completely. Nawagamuwage, who was 11 at the time, remembers one of the drivers weeping at their front door one evening.
“I thought now I was living my father’s worst nightmares,” Nawagamuwage said of the bombings.
Nawagamuwage got into the hotel business after a career as an international consultant. He returned to Sri Lanka after the war, as the government was pushing tourism.
“Everyone was still developing beach villas and hotels — and by that point, we couldn’t compete in that with places like Maldives,” he said. “I wanted to do something outside the beach.”
He bought 50 acres in the mountains, seeing an opportunity to harness the serene environment, history of Buddhism and spirituality, and herbal Ayurvedic traditions of Sri Lanka into a wellness retreat. He named it Santani, which in Sanskrit means “in harmony.”
A Buddhist temple in the village of WerapitiyaImage: Adam Dean/The New York Times
Like cars, the human body needs regular servicing, he said. At Santani, that would be offered — in the yoga studio built into the slope, in the spa that includes a saltwater bath, in the fine dining offerings, for which the chef travels 60 miles a week to handpick the fish.
It also showed how tourism can transform a small community.
Before Santani opened, the local high school, the post office and the temple were the area’s main landmarks. Villagers either farmed vegetables to sell at nearby markets or left for jobs elsewhere.
Now the resort sponsors high school sports events and takes in three of its top “home sciences” students as kitchen apprentices. In return, the resort uses the school grounds as a helipad for guests.
But perhaps no one illustrates the effects of a cash injection better than the Senarathna family. Before the resort, Samantha Priya Senarathna earned about $20 a month guarding the property for its previous owner. He made an additional $40 from a roadside tea stand.
When construction work started, he won initial contracts for work like erecting fences around the property and clearing trees. He employed nearly a dozen people, including his younger brother Priyanka.
The elder Senarathna now has a beautiful two-story house off the village’s main road. It has three bedrooms on the second floor for his wife and two children, and a busy grocery shop on the ground floor that the family runs. He has paid off 60% of the loans for the house.
“It is hard to imagine I would have all this,” he said.
The younger Senarathna, who had worked on the property as a laborer, got a job in the kitchen when the resort opened, starting as a dishwasher and making his way up. Last week, he was promoted to commis, or chef’s assistant.
But the bombings have changed everything, at least in the short term. Employee salaries depend on the hotel’s service charge — a kind of formalized tipping system that is tied to occupancy. In some cases, it is as much as 70%. And guests are scarce these days.
For much of a recent week, Bridget Errington, a social worker from London, was the only guest at Santani. Friends had urged her to cancel her trip, which she booked in February.
But Errington had backpacked in Sri Lanka 20 years ago and knew that the hill country was far from the sites of the attacks. She said she had enjoyed having the resort to herself and felt perfectly safe “wrapped by the nature, by the mountains.”
“I was the last man standing here,” she said. “I joked with the staff that ‘I am the owner now — it’s a takeover.’”
The situation has been less of a joke for Osanda Dissanayake, the giggly 21-year-old naturalist who leads tours down to the river.
His daily tours usually included at least a dozen people. His last tour, on Monday last week, had just three, including Errington. After that, no tours.
“There’s nothing to do,” he said. “For the past two days, I have been going round and round.”