At least 35 tourists were among more than 200 people killed during ferocious terrorist attacks that rocked Sri Lanka yesterday, targeting three churches and three luxury hotels during Easter Sunday celebrations with authorities worried about its immediate impact on tourism.
TV visuals showed graphic scenes of devastation at three five-star Colombo hotels – Shangri-La, the Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand – where Sunday Easter Brunch patrons at three restaurants were swept away by the blasts.
Chairman of the state-owned Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Kishu Gomes told TTG Asia that 32 tourists died from the attacks while another 20 received treatment at state hospitals. Other sources said the death toll had risen to 35 foreigners.
“Our priority right now is in attending to the needs of those affected and coordinating with the hospitals and embassies. Tomorrow it would be clearer as what needs to done in the short and long term (to restore confidence in the industry),” Gomes said.
Tourists from the UK, the US, Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Belgium were among the victims.
While Sri Lankan authorities put the pieces together, imposing a 15-hour curfew ending at 06.00 on Monday, tourism officials braced for serious repercussions on the country’s thriving tourism sector.
Sri Lanka is expecting 2.5 million tourists this year, sharply up from less than 500,000 on 2008, a year before the civil war ended. Achieving the target this year is going to be challenging with these attacks, industry officials said.
Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) president Harith Perera said that this was the first time that hotels have been directly attacked, which had not happened even during the bloody 30-year-separatist conflict which ended in May 2009.
He said Sunday’s events were likely to impact on the summer holiday season.
Sri Lanka Hotels Association president Sanath Ukwatte was also shocked by the attacks which targeted Easter celebrations and Easter Mass. Noting that this would affect tourism, he said security was being beefed up at hotels with bags being checked among these measures. No major cancellations were reported so far while a few corporate clients had postponed trips, he said.
The authorities immediately suspended domestic flights at all local airports and beefed up security at the country’s main Bandaranaike International Airport.
Civil Aviation director general HMC Nimalsiri said that while all domestic flights have been suspended for the time being the authorities have raised the level of threat to the highest to all airports in the country.
The Sri Lankan government ordered the closure of schools and state universities on Monday and Tuesday but has been cautious in naming the perpetrators of the simultaneous morning attacks on six locations. Government investigators however suspect an extremist Islamic group of involvement and the involvement of three suicide bombers in the attacks.
The three churches in Colombo, Negombo on the west coast and one in eastern Batticaloa were packed with worshippers when the attacks occurred. More than 400 people have been injured.