Sri Lanka was one of the world’s hottest holiday destinations until the Easter Sunday bomb attacks dealt a devastating blow to country’s fast-growing tourism sector and travellers began shunning the Indian Ocean island in droves. Can Sri Lanka’s tourism sector make a comeback from this setback? Feizal Samath assesses the situation
Barely a few months after Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the top travel destination in 2019, the country was rocked by a series of deadly bomb attacks on April 21, which killed over 250 people and sent the lucrative US$4.4 billion tourism industry into a tailspin.
With visitor arrivals taking a severe hit – the post-attack Sri Lanka receives an average 1,800 visitors daily compared to 4,500 earlier – authorities are looking to expedite the launch of a destination marketing campaign to restore confidence in the country.
According to Kishu Gomes, chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), there are plans to mount an aggressive destination marketing campaign as soon as travel advisories are relaxed.
Contrary to the three-year-long So Sri Lanka campaign earlier unveiled, which was originally scheduled to start in mid-2019, Gomes said the new campaign will now be fast-tracked as a six-month offensive given the current environment where intensive marketing and promotion efforts are urgently required.
Cabinet approval is also being sought to appoint a PR company and a global advertising agency to implement the US$5.6 million marketing campaign. Gomes added: “In order to build confidence we are also looking at offering insurance cover by Sri Lankan insurers to visitors.”
Debt-ridden hotels have also been provided with a one-year moratorium on loans and interest repayments and tax concessions as the battered hospitality industry struggles to pick up the pieces after occupancies plunge as low as 10 per cent, a dramatic fall from 60-70 per cent before the attacks.
With security being the key towards relaxing a proliferation of travel advisories from key source markets, the government is planning a security audit even as senior government leaders say the situation is now slowly returning to normal.
In a bid to relax the travel warnings, which also hinders travel insurance for tourists, military intelligence officers are holding regular briefings with the defence attachés of foreign missions in Sri Lanka to explain the security situation.
At press time, China, India, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden have just announced the relaxation of travel restrictions to Sri Lanka.
Security has been tightened across the island with military checkpoints at various places while metal detectors and body searches are routinely done. Colombo hotels have also provided with military guards.
Nalin Jayasundera, vice president of Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators, said that key areas that have to be addressed include convincing diplomats that the situation is under control and to lift or soften the travel advisories, ensuring airlines keep flying to Sri Lanka without reducing frequencies or pulling out due to fewer passenger loads; promotions jointly funded by the SLTPB and tour operators; and publicity for the enhanced security measures at hotels to ensure guest safety.
As well, Dileep Mudadeniya, vice president – brand marketing at Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts, sees a need to build up public perception of Sri Lanka as a safe destination.
“Schools have to open, people should return to parks and other public places and businesses should return to normal,” he said, adding that this is key to ensuring the country is back to normal, and the security situation is under control.
However, one of the biggest challenges in convincing Sri Lanka’s key visitor source markets to lift travel advisories appears to be the lack of a single voice, as sought by the industry, in explaining the status of security in the country.
President Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who represent different political parties in the incumbent administration, have provided somewhat contradictory opinions on the security level. While Sirisena has said the situation is under control, Wickremesinghe has expressed the view that it is not fully under control.
“Not having a unified voice on the security threat is confusing to us,” said a western diplomat who declined to be named. Also of concern to foreign envoys is the country’s intelligence gathering capabilities which they say needs to be strengthened, citing media reports and public awareness that information of a possible Easter Sunday attack was known to some political leaders and the defence establishment, but these threats were not taken seriously.
Meanwhile, at least 50 tourism organisations including Sri Lanka’s biggest local hotel chains – Jetwing Hotels, Heritance Hotels and Resorts, and Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts – supported by international chains, Movenpick and Anantara have come together to form the Sri Lankan Tourism Alliance (www.lovesrilanka.org) to provide a single point of contact for updates to travellers and for trade overseas.
“We felt there was a need for an independent message from the industry, apart from the government’s, on the status in Sri Lanka because there were different messages going (around),” said Hotels Association of Sri Lanka president Sanath Ukwatte, who is also chairman of Mount Lavinia Hotel, one of the supporters of this initiative.
“Until they are convinced that it is safe for travel, the travel advisories will remain. We are hoping our alliance will help provide that assurance of security in addition to assurances from the government,” he said.
Industry officials say it would take a year for tourism to return to its pre-April 21 status when it was heading for nearly three million arrivals this year, up from 2.3 million in 2018. Arrivals this year are now expected to plunge 25-30 per cent to around 1.6-1.8 million.
According to Cinnamon’s Mudadeniya, a positive factor in Sri Lanka’s tourism recovery effort is the global reduction of risk perceptions since the 9/11 attacks. “Due to the frequency and manner of these attacks, (travellers) have reduced their perception of risks,” he said.
Moreover, a strong recovery plan, as well as the popular perception of Sri Lanka being a must-visit destination, could help to absorb part of negative publicity arising from the recent blasts.
Krishan Balendra, chairman, John Keells Holdings, noted: “If you look at similar incidents in other countries, in about a year we should be back to where we were, assuming there isn’t a recurrence. I’m sure that it will very unlikely recur.
“Our rating was 1 which is a very safe country, now we have gone to a 4 if you use the US rating mechanism. We can go to a 2 which says terrorist attacks are likely. For that matter, most of Western Europe is also rated at 2,” Balendra noted.
Abbas Esufally, group director at Hemas Holdings – which has several hotels including the Anantara brand under its wing – believes that once the travel advisories are lifted and the security situation is improved, an aggressive destination marketing campaign should take off.
“If this happens in the next few weeks or months, we feel there would be a slow, steady recovery of the industry and have a pickup by winter,” he said.