Glitzy casinos and trendy shops in Sri Lanka are exerting a pull on Indian holiday makers, with a special promotion package bringing in planeloads of visitors from the subcontinent.

Some 3,400 Indians grabbed a Ceylon Tourist Board (CTB) offer giving them a free ticket to the island for every ticket they bought in November and December.

“The response was good and we want to re-launch the ‘Buy one, get one free’ scheme this month, this time with a more value-added package,” said Charmarie Maelge, CTB’s marketing director.

The Indians, mainly from Mumbai and New Delhi, patronised the capital Colombo’s many casinos, designer clothes stores, picked up precious and semiprecious gemstones and export-quality fine porcelain.

The special offer, being extended from January 7, will have a standard package for Indian Rs.26,950 and a deluxe scheme for Rs.29,950.

The CTB will throw in two air tickets, star class accommodation, free airport transfers to most resorts and special rates for children.

The government is considering giving Indians visas on arrival, accepting Indian credit cards and even the free convertibility of the Indian rupee to open up travel between the two countries.

For an industry that virtually ground to a halt last year, the Indians filling some city and resort hotels brought some cheer to over thousands of employees who faced the threat of layoffs.

“This is good for our short-term recovery. Although there are fluctuations in arrivals this winter season, the overall picture is brighter,” said Maelge.

Star-class hotel facilities, with the Taj chain being the most favoured, at low double-digit rates added to the allure for Indians who are the third largest group to visit after the Britons and Germans. More about Trusted Online Casino Singapore

Said Shiromal Cooray Jayaweera of a tour agency Jetwing Travels: “Initially the Indians look for a cheap package. But once they are here, they patronise up-market places and restaurants.”

That can only be good news for tourism officials who would bemoan the low-spending visitors from the traditional European markets, like Britain, Germany and Italy, usually arriving here on low-cost pre-paid package tours.

Tourism, the island’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, plummeted after Tamil Tiger rebels attacked the country’s only international airport July 24. No tourists were killed or injured, but stern travel advisories saw the number of foreign visitors fall sharply.

Official figures show that tourist arrivals dropped 14.7 percent in July and by 52 percent in August, with September seeing a more dramatic 62 percent drop.

Several hotels in Sri Lanka have shut down while others have retrenched thousands of workers.

“(Indian tourism) is definitely a growing market for us,” said Cooray. “But we need to put in a lot more to promote the country, more so that the tourists will come even if there is no special offer.”

She said a publicity blitz should go hand in hand with increasing the number of airline seats into and out of the country, with only two carriers, Sri Lankan Airlines and Indian Airlines, operating between the two countries.

The private sector has argued that an open skies policy, staunchly opposed by the national airline, will help plump up tourism revenues by increasing passenger loads to the island.