Major UN conference postponed as countries heighten travel warnings for Sri Lanka

The campaign launch will proceed as planned at WTM London

Organisers have postponed the world’s largest wildlife conference – Sri Lanka’s biggest ever – in the aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings which killed 253 people, as the country braces for another week of tight security and armed guards at key economic centres including hotels as security forced hunted for more Muslim extremists.

Sri Lanka was scheduled to host the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from May 23 to June 3 drawing 3,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries.

CITES secretariat working to ‘try and honour’ the arrangement

But Geneva-based CITES secretary-general Ivonne Higuero said in statement on Friday that the event has been postponed “out of respect for the victims of the recent attacks and the recognition by the Standing Committee, the Secretariat and the United Nations Department of Safety and Security of the time needed for the government of Sri Lanka to address the current situation in the country”.

This came as several countries heightened their travel warnings. The US Embassy in Colombo said State Department has “ordered the departure of all school-age family members of US government employees in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Department also authorised the voluntary departure of non-emergency US government employees and family members”.

Stating that terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka, the advisory also urged US citizens to reconsider travel to Sri Lanka. It added: “The US government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Sri Lanka due to the security environment.”

India and China, Sri Lanka’s largest tourism source markets, as well as the UK and Canada were among other countries urging their nationals to avoid non-essential travel to the country.

Tourists arrivals are set to drop by 30 per cent and result in a loss of US$1.5 billion in revenue this year owing to the attacks, finance minister Mangala Samaraweera told reporters on Friday. Tourism is the country’s fastest growing economic sector.

Prior to the Easter Sunday atrocities, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was showing healthy growth, Forwardkeys analysis revealed. Flight bookings to Sri Lanka in 2019 (January 1 to April 20) were 3.4 per cent up on the same period in 2018. The tourism highlights were Russia, Australia and China, which showed visitor increases of 45.7 per cent, 19.0 per cent and 16.8 per cent respectively.

But a tidal wave of cancellations has hit Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, according to ForwardKeys. In the three days immediately after the bombings, cancellations of existing bookings surged 86.2 per cent whilst new bookings fell away. Forward bookings for July and August, which had been running 2.6 per cent ahead of last year, as of April 20, fell to 0.3 per cent behind as of April 23.

John Keells Holdings, owner of the affected Cinnamon Grand hotel in the April 21 blasts, noted that the latest incident will have a negative impact on the tourism industry and other sectors of the economy. “We call upon the relevant authorities to take urgent steps to prevent a recurrence of these heinous acts,” it said in a statement.

Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury Colombo were the hotels where suicide bombers, also at three churches, detonated bombs on Easter Sunday. Other than the Shangri-La which has been closed indefinitely, the other two hotels alongside other luxury hotels on the same stretch of road in Colombo were operating amidst tight security. Hotel car parks have been closed for security reasons.

Forty tourists died in the blasts, including foreign nationals from Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the US.

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