By The Morning Brunch Desk
Situated along the South Coast, Mirissa was the place to be for those looking to escape city life – a slice of paradise that offered adventure and entertainment. But with the Covid-19 pandemic holding the world hostage, both businesses and residents in the area have had to grapple with a crisis like no other.
It was the 90s when Mirissa truly took off as a tourist destination, mainly due to surfing and whale-watching. As its prominence grew, people flocked to the town, eager to witness the gentle giants that inhabited its waters up close and to hear their songs.
As watersports began to gain traction in Sri Lanka, Mirissa became the embodiment of the ideal beachside vacation. And so, hotels in the area thrived, residents launched various tourism-focused enterprises, and the small coastal town soon went down as one of the top destinations to travel to.
Picking up the pieces
After the Easter Sunday bombings of April 2019, tourism in Sri Lanka took a hit. The numbers were devastatingly low. Security was a key concern for many around the world, but as assurances began to flood in over the weeks, the worries began to dissipate.
But how do the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic differ from those suffered after the Easter Sunday tragedy?
For starters, this is a global crisis. As countries around the world started going into lockdown and flights were being grounded indefinitely, the tourism sector – a key source of income for Sri Lanka – was plunged into uncertainty. And now, no one is coming in and no one is going out.
Businesses and communities in the country that were most reliant on tourism for revenue took the brunt of the blow, with places like Mirissa being heavily affected economically. This did not bode well for a country struggling to pick up the pieces after last year’s tragedy.
The year 2020 was supposed to be a turning point, according to Dhammika Wijetunga, the Owner of Secret Root Spa in Mirissa, a popular stop for those looking to get pampered amidst their holidaying. “We had high hopes for 2020. The start of the year was brilliant. Everything was fully booked! But now, all the businesses have closed, including our spa. Our guesthouse remains open for those who are stranded here, but that’s about it.”
Wijetunga isn’t the only one who has had to take such drastic measures. As the Government imposed much-needed curfews throughout the island, it became more and more difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to stay afloat.
Tourism relies on seasonal income, which is especially true for businesses like surf schools. Mirissa, being home to multiple often-frequented surf spots, may see a significant decline in surfers along their shores in the time to come.
The Morning Brunch spoke to Chamara from TS2 Weligama, who stated that they had to cancel up to 20 bookings shortly after the initial curfew was announced by the Government.
“We had to close down two months earlier than planned. Currently, four guests are stuck here. Basically, we are open for these in-house guests and are operating with minimal staff and providing a few basic services. It’s worrisome because the surf season is coming up,” he said.
When asked about how they have managed to adapt to the situation, Chamara explained that the Government has been supportive in terms of loans and concessions, but opined that if smaller tourism-reliant businesses are to survive the coming months, the Government may have to focus on uplifting coastal tourism as these are the areas where tourists are likely to stay for longer periods of time and the loss of visitors has hit them heavily.
Many restaurants in Mirissa have effectively ceased operations, but a few continue to provide services by tying up with delivery partners. One such restaurant is Zephyr Restaurant & Bar.
We spoke to a partner of the restaurant and bar, who candidly shared that things were looking dull. “It’s out of our hands. This is global now. We just have to wait it out. We get a few delivery requests now and then, but not many. There are a bunch of foreign business owners as well, and we’re all in the same boat.”
“One of our key concerns is that our machines might rust,” he added. “We’re close to the beach and if we don’t run our machines every now and then, we’d have to replace them.” He went on to say that people are finding it difficult to obtain necessities like food. “We’ve got a few people on hand and we’re running.”
Peacock Villa Managing Director Gomida Jayasinghe shared the same sentiment as the team at Zephyr. “Businesses like ours operate a lot of expensive machinery, and if they stay dormant, we’d have quite an expense on our hands when we get back to business.”
He elaborated on the seriousness of the situation, explaining that various components of the hotel required constant upkeep, including their pool, banisters, and more. “Our staff come to work for 10 days of the month for this purpose. We’re paying them the basic salary. We’ve had to let go of several provisional employees. If the situation gets worse, we’d have to sit down and rethink our decisions.
“We rely on the seasonal income to survive the off-seasons. In Mirissa, that’s between May to November. This is usually when we carry out renovations. Our schedules have been disrupted, people were suffering as many businesses couldn’t retain their staff. The Government offered loans and other forms of relief, which we applied for. It’s still pending, but we’re hopeful.”
When asked about in-house guests, he replied: “We don’t have any at the moment, but we did have about 30 when curfew was first imposed – mostly Russians. With only one outbound flight to Russia per week, our guests were stranded here. We couldn’t find vehicles to drop them at the airport, we needed curfew passes, and there were many other issues too.”
He went on to describe the situation that prevailed during April. “We had enough stocks for a week, but that wasn’t enough. We managed to provide for all the guests who were stuck here but we also had a lot of support from the Police here, who were understanding of the situation. A company even distributed masks and sanitiser free of charge, and we ensured all our guests had ample supply of both.”
With a lighter perspective, he stated that he was glad that all the guests felt welcome and cared for. “We wanted to preserve Sri Lanka’s name as a hospitable destination, and we did everything we could to ensure this.”
Memories of the recent past
For Rashid, 25, an avid traveller, Mirissa was one of the places he could count on to escape the noise of Colombo. When we spoke to him, he reminisced about his visits to the tranquil town as he recalled how blissful yet alive it was prior to the pandemic taking hold.
When he last visited Mirissa in December 2019, Rashid saw a town that was starting to get back to its former glory. “Tourists were flooding in again! Mirissa was rebuilding after the establishments along its coast were demolished…It was like seeing it rise to the peak it had reached in 2016.”
Rashid then took a moment to think about the significance the town held in his own journeys. “To me, Mirissa was all about the people. Sure, it’s really popular for watersports, like surfing, whale-watching, diving, and so on, but I’m primarily a backpacker. To me, it was a place where I could meet different people from all over the world and talk to them. I never stayed at hotels, I used to opt for hostels.”
When asked about what he missed most about Mirissa, he said: “It was a break from the concrete jungle I’m used to. There was freedom of movement, it was more laid back, and there was no rush. You weren’t chained to anything. I just liked chilling on the beach.”
However, he did have grievances about the treatment of locals in the area. “It used to not be like this but the establishments started showing preference for foreigners. If things ever go back to normal in Sri Lanka, I think it would help if they welcomed locals as warmly. I don’t see airports opening up anytime soon, so if anyone’s going to patronise these establishments, it would probably be the locals.”
Keeping hope alive
The weighty economic impacts faced by the businesses may not be mitigated overnight, and Mirissa may not bounce back to its lively state immediately, but despite the varying experiences of and struggles faced by these individuals and enterprises alike, they shared something in common: Hope.
When asked what they wanted to see over the course of the year, in their own words they stated that they wanted to see the country staying strong and hopeful. The price paid is nothing compared to the lives saved, and with hope alive, we might make it in time to hear the whales sing along Mirissa’s shores again.