Carolyn Fry finds that surfing is helping one Sri Lankan resort to get back on its feet after the tsunami
Tuesday August 2, 2005
Alan Stokes takes on the surf at Arugam Bay. Photograph: Carolyn Fry
On a sweeping stretch of cinnamon sand, a crowd turned its eyes to the rolling ocean surf. Local families, holiday-makers and a throng of photographers, film-makers and journalists were gathering to see the 2005 Champion of Champions surf contest in Arugam Bay, south-east Sri Lanka.
As a new day’s sun burned the sand through the fronds of coconut palms, surfers launched themselves into the water to ride the swell in a ballet of curving turns, speeding glides and twists of spray. The Boxing Day tsunami ripped through this sleepy beachside village, but the Indian Ocean’s barrelling waves are helping the community get back on its feet.
The legendary ‘right-handers’ of Arugam Bay have long attracted travelling wave-riders. During the country’s 20-year civil war, a dedicated group of Australian surfers regularly risked being bombed, or shot in cross-fire during violent battles between Tamil Tigers and the army. With the end of the conflict in 2002, more adventurers started to make the 10-hour journey along narrow, pitted roads to the famed beach.
Last year, when the British Professional Surfing Association (BPSA) held the first ever Champions surfing competition in the area it seemed things were finally looking up for this dusty, laid-back cluster of low-rise hotels, palm-roofed cabanas and fishermen’s shacks.
A message posted on the Siam View Hotel’s website at Christmas said: “The 2004 season has been the best the bay has ever seen. Nothing – not even another civil war – can stop the bay’s progress now.”
Hours later, the first of eight waves struck, sucking a metre of sand from the base of palms on Arugam Point, plucking cabanas and their inhabitants from the sand and smashing a thickening cargo of debris through the windows of the buses on the main street.
Simon, owner of the unfortunately named Tsunami Hotel, was managing the Siam View that night. He awoke to find himself underwater with his leg trapped. After breaking his ankle to free himself he was swept through several dwellings by the murky, diesel-tainted current before managing to grasp hold of some building blocks. This stopped Simon being swept out to sea as the water receded back to the horizon. Today, his faded superman tattoo has been supplemented by a fresh turquoise inking of a tsunami, along with the date he survived against all odds.
Following the tsunami, the organisers of the surfing contest were in two minds as to whether it should go ahead this year. A third of Arugam Bay’s 3,000 inhabitants had been killed in the disaster, money pledged by charities was slow in reaching the village and the bridge carrying the main road into Arugam Bay had been breached by the waves, cutting the community off for a short period.
However, when the bridge reopened in April the organisers decided the competition should take place. They felt that bringing 100 people into the village would serve as an impetus to get hotels rebuilt as soon as possible as well as injecting much-needed cash into the local economy.
“Everyone worked very, very hard to put it in place,” said Ralph Pereira, managing director of Travel and Tours Anywhere, which developed the contest in conjunction with Sri Lankan Airlines and the BPSA. “We didn’t know for sure that it would go ahead or whether there would be sufficient hotel rooms until six weeks beforehand.”
Guesthouse owners had certainly been hurrying to rebuild and reopen rooms damaged by the tsunami. At Hideaway Guesthouse, where I was staying, the front part of the garden was still a building site. But the main building, with its colonial tea plantation feel was homely and clean, with plump pink and orange cushions brightening rattan chairs.
Before the tsunami, surfing had been a mainstay of the tourism economy right around Sri Lanka’s southern coastline. The island’s south-west has the best waves from November to April, the south-east from May to September.
When Arugam Bay’s right-handers tailed off with the onset of the monsoon, surfers simply headed west to Hikkaduwa, where plentiful hotels and beach villas stood among lush gardens of banana and bourganvillia.
Recreating this surfers’ paradise in the wake of the tsunami has not been easy; with compensation payments from the government yet to materialise, most tourism enterprises have had to rely on their own funds to rebuild their businesses.
“We lost all our watersports equipment,” explained Thilak Weerasinghe, managing director of Lanka Sportreizen. “I didn’t get a cent, but luckily we had built up the business and can afford to rebuild.”
The Travel Foundation and Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito) are working with the Sri Lankan government, local communities and environmental groups to help people affected by the tsunami regain their livelihoods by developing responsible tourism initiatives.
A number of projects have been earmarked for assistance, including a plan to create a sustainable fishing village. Visitors will see fish being brought to shore and sold, enabling fishermen to benefit from tourism while maintaining their traditional role in society.
Another scheme aims to revegetate land affected by the tsunami, using native plant species. This will include research into using mangroves for coastal protection. Funding for the projects will come from money already pledged by Aito members and donations from customers.
Back in Arugam Bay, there are plans to use money raised by the UK surfing fraternity to build a community surf foundation. Tsunami Surf Relief UK (TSRUK) has so far raised Â£30,000 through charity auctions and events and has allocated a third of this to building a new surf centre. As well as being a focal point where local surfers can meet, the foundation will help generate cash by offering board hire and surfing lessons to visiting tourists.
“We felt the community would benefit from having a centre offering surf-board hire and perhaps swimming lessons and life-guarding,” explained Phil Williams, national director of Christian Surfers UK and a trustee of TSRUK. “The break at Arugam Point is world famous for its waves and surfers from around the world go specifically to that area. In the three or four years after the ceasefire and before the tsunami, more and more surfers were coming to A-Bay; it was a much more prosperous place than before they came.”
As the surfing contest hotted up there was something of a party atmosphere on the beach. Dozens of coloured flags rippled in the tropical wind along the path to Arugam Point where glassy turquoise waves curled invitingly around the reef.
Judges assessed surfers on their turns, style and risk-taking, while waiting competitors nervously flexed their muscles, waxed their boards and contemplated their chances of winning the Â£2,000 prize money.
For the Sri Lankan surfers, many of whom lost friends and family in the tsunami, preparing for the contest helped them overcome their fear of the ocean. As each entered the water, the 100 or so villagers seated beneath the palm trees lining the shore cheered and whistled their support.
“The contest has been hugely important for morale after the tsunami,” said Phil Williams. “It’s sent out the message that, while Arugam Bay isn’t quite yet open for business as usual, it’s back on the tourist trail.”
Way to go
Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2001), offers 11 flights a week from Heathrow to Colombo. Fares start at Â£450 return plus taxes
Where to stay: Travel and Tours Anywhere Ltd (0208 8136622) offers surfing holidays to Arugam Bay and Hikkaduwa. A 15-day holiday to Arugam Bay including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation in a guest house costs from Â£699pp. 14 days in Hikkaduwa costs from Â£599pp. Hire of boards and surfing lessons can be arranged
When to go: The waves at Arugam Bay are best between May and September during the dry season. During the off-season, Sri Lanka’s main surf spot on the south-west coast, Hikkaduwa, has good waves
Further information: Sri Lanka Tourist Board (020-7930 2627), arugambay.com’