Why can’t we attract cruise ships instead?


Sri Lanka is strategically placed on the East-West maritime route, but the benefits in terms of business and revenue to the country have yet to be realised. However, battleships continue to arrive with the permission of the Sri Lankan Government, which has little say over warships entering the harbours, all because Sri Lanka is weighed down with loans and grants from countries such as China and India, as well as friendly bilateral ties that create such grounds to entertain them.

Sri Lanka’s maritime industry has long been compared to that of Singapore, although this is an unfair comparison to begin with. Despite Covid-19 travel restrictions, Singapore welcomed 143 cruise ships in 2020, the lowest number of cruise ship visits in ten years. In 2019, the cruise industry carried over 1.82 million passengers and made 414 port calls. In 2019, around 400 cruise ships from 30 cruise lines docked in Singapore. In terms of port business, Sri Lanka has a lot of catching up to do.

If you research the Maldives, roughly around 60 cruise lines arrive in the Maldives every year and around 60,000 tourists visit the Maldives annually from the cruises.

The last cruise ship to arrive at Port of Colombo was Costa Victoria, the Victoria-class cruise ship operated by Costa Cruises, which is a leading cruise company in Venice, Italy, that came on 5 November 2019. According to the official website of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, up until April 2019, about 25 passenger ships had visited the area. It is unclear exactly when these cruise ships arrived in Sri Lanka, a nation with more tourist attractions than Singapore and the Maldives combined.

Pakistani battleship

On Friday (12) at about 12:00 p.m., a Chinese-built Pakistani warship docked at the passenger jetty of the Port of Colombo. Pakistan Navy’s missile frigate PNS Taimur, made the port call in Colombo after being granted permission by the Sri Lankan Government. However, this very warship was denied entry clearance to dock at Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. Dhaka denied entry from 7 to 10 August. The warship is expected to reach Karachi on 15 August from the Colombo Port and the distance from China to Karachi is about 3,744 km. The new frigate arrival to Sri Lanka is for replenishment too and there is some revenue to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority from this visit. Also, the Finance Minister of Bangladesh has cautioned poor nations to be wary of Chinese loans. According to Minister of Finance Mustafa Kamal, developing nations should exercise caution before borrowing money through China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This ship was commissioned by the Pakistan Navy at Hudong Zhonghua (HZ) Shipyard, China, Pakistan Navy said on 23 June. PNS Taimur is the second ship of four Type 054 A/P Frigates constructed for the Pakistan Navy which is equipped with laser-guided missiles. The first 054 A/P Frigate PNS Tughril has joined PN Fleet in January 2022, while another two frigates of same class are presently under construction in China.

PNS Taimur is a technologically advanced and highly capable sea asset having hi-tech weapons and sensors, but they have no spying equipment, but latest combat management and electronic warfare system to fight under multi-threat environments.

Spy ship Yuan Wang 5 from China

The main issue is Sri Lanka is caught up in the Cold War between China and India and the border dispute that has escalated between the two countries. India is nervous about China’s entrance into the Indian Ocean Region with its ambitious New Silk Roads diplomacy. Due to India’s historical, cultural, geographical, and ethnic link that China lacks, China and India have been intermittently flexing their might, while Sri Lanka has consistently granted permission for combat ships to arrive in Sri Lanka, unable to reject them.

China still battles it out to demonstrate its influence in the Indian Ocean using its foothold in Sri Lanka. But China’s latest battle is that it is forced to restructure the debt it has offered to Sri Lanka in order for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Sri Lanka that stands crucial. China must now catch up to the Sri Lankan Government’s drive for the bailout package. China may use that as leverage to gain whatever it wants, including authorisation to dock the Yuan Wang 5, a research and surveillance ship operated by the People’s Liberation Army of China and equipped with satellite tracking technology.

The Sri Lankan Government has given an indefinite word, but just to differ docking at Hambantota. That does not send out a clear signal to China. China has already expressed that Sri Lanka should not be pressurised by India and tarnish its bilateral ties with China.

Sri Lanka has been warned by the two superpowers, but ironically it knows it would invite such problems if it entertains warships.

In this context, the Sri Lankan Government has officially informed the Chinese Embassy that the docking of the Yuan Wang 5 should be postponed. The ship is still in the Indian Ocean and is around 650 nautical miles from the Port of Hambantota, seeking berthing authorisation despite India’s concerns. India has questioned on the reason or the purpose of such a vessel to come to Hambantota Port. There is no need for a research vessel to dock and it has only travelled 29 days. The ship has never docked in any port in the past is their claim.

According to reports, Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave the order for the spy ship to dock in Hambantota, and it was his final official nod before he fled. The Indians fear the spy ship is presently primarily spying on India’s national security. When there is a fuel issue, how can Sri Lanka supply fuel to the vessel? is also an argument raised by the Big Brother. What is notable is that it consented to host a military vessel whose duty involves surveying the ocean floor for anti-submarine operations against India in its ‘commercial port.’

According to reports, the ship was last seen near India’s maritime border, on the country’s eastern side, not far from Visakhapatnam, but near Chennai. However, the course has now changed, and it is still unknown where the ship will go. It is presently traveling along the Hambantota side of the southern eastern waters.

China constructed Hambantota Port and assumed ownership of the 100-year lease after Sri Lanka was unable to make payments, but this does not entitle it to dock its ships, as observed by Harbour Master, Captain Nirmal de Silva.

Even after the Chinese ship received official consent through the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic channels, Captain de Silva stated that as the Harbour Master he must still authorise the ship’s docking in any Sri Lankan port.

The Harbour Master further said any ship, whether commercial or warship, has to obtain permission to enter any port. According to reports, Chinese officials had held another round of talks to obtain clearance, but they were not granted but deferred.

The postponement means they can ask for permission again, which will have to be fresh approval from the Government’s diplomatic channel as well as from the Harbour Master, Captain de Silva said.

But these two are the latest of many battleships that had come to Sri Lanka after China’s BRI was mooted in the Indian Ocean.

India’s primary concern is national security, as a result, it has always endeavoured to maintain amicable relations with Sri Lanka and is presently helping Sri Lanka recover from its economic collapse. This might also be done to ensure that Sri Lanka doesn’t accept loans or assistance from China. Sri Lanka must restructure its debt with China in order to qualify for the loan, according to the IMF. China is concerned that the IMF may oppose and challenge its BRI projects in the already precarious Indian Ocean region.

Sri Lanka must play cautiously to avoid upsetting either China or India. As a developing country, it must play a strict game of just marketing its long-lost economy and creating that demand while positioned on a vital supply route. Instead, Sri Lanka cleared the ship Yuan Wang 5’s visit before objecting to it. It must nevertheless decide regarding whether or not to approve it in the months ahead, despite being indefinite at present. The postponement letter to dock at Hambantota is likewise unsatisfactory, and Sri Lanka is still in a precarious situation in terms of Yuan Wang 5. It has already been established that Sri Lanka is laying the foundation for a maritime conflict in the neighbourhood and the visits of battleships is the latest example. We have had over 300 battleship visits in the recent past.

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By Sulochana Raimah Mohan


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