Zulfath Saheed presents an in-depth assessment of the future of tourism in the post-COVID era

COVID-19 has impacted the economy across the board with tourism being one of the hardest hit industries given that recreational travel – both domestic and international – became all but impossible as a result of the pandemic.

Indeed, the coronavirus has brought socioeconomic structures to a standstill while also challenging global business operations. Enterprises including those engaged in tourism are compelled to adopt unconventional ways to regain functionality.

As the industry attempts to recover and resume operations in the months ahead, it is required to reset and rethink how tourism can move forward with renewed vigour. And this endeavour is of particular importance to South Asian economies including Sri Lanka.

REGIONAL CONTEXT A sense of uncertainty and anxiety is to be expected of travellers when it comes to tourism in the age of the coronavirus. Therefore, nations across the world would have to give due attention to tailoring their reopening and revival strategies to specific contexts.

In July, the possibility of establishing travel bubbles or corridors – that would permit countries in the South Asian region to implement protocols for opening up channels for air travel on a reciprocal basis – was discussed among members of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Regional Action Group for South Asia.

WEF observes that “establishing these safe zones bilaterally or among a group of countries with similar recovery trajectories would build focussed capacities to safely manage the flow of tourists and allow testing of the framework for reopening on a larger scale at a later stage.”

“This approach would also permit a higher degree of control over a smaller tourist flow, which would enable faster rollback of open channels in the event of unanticipated spikes in the number of infection cases,” it adds.

NICHE TOURISM Meanwhile, WEF’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report for 2019 points to natural and cultural diversity, as well as price competitiveness, as being attributable for South Asia’s emergence as an attractive tourist destination with the international body noting that “this is where the region can leverage regional cooperation towards building a sector revival strategy.”

It posits: “For example, India could explore an adventure tourism circuit with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka where travellers get to experience the enthralling Himalayan landscapes, followed by a trip down south to explore some of Sri Lanka’s best surfing spots.”

“Similarly, a spiritual tourism circuit could offer the international traveller a well-marketed package to discover the historical monuments of faith systems that bind the region together,” the report adds.

RELIEF MEASURES Last year, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) also launched the ‘Safe Travels’ stamp in a bid to establish a harmonised approach when it comes to setting guidelines with regard to reopening the industry.

The Safe Travels stamp is said to have been designed to help prospective travellers recognise establishments across the world that adopt standardised health and hygiene protocols, and is backed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

It may be used throughout the travel and tourism value chain – for instance, to certify hotels, restaurants, airlines, cruise lines, tour operators, outdoor shopping, transportation and airports.

LOCAL PERSPECTIVE Meanwhile, at the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2020 held in December on ‘Rethinking the Game Plan in Shaping Tourism of Tomorrow,’ Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Kimarli Fernando highlighted some of the short to medium-term strategies Sri Lanka would need to adopt to restart tourism, and what more is needed to enhance the tourism offering and experience in the next few years.

Speaking by way of virtual presence, Fernando revealed that the tourism industry was awaiting the green light from the authorities to reopen the country’s borders for foreign tourists with safety measures in place.

She commented that the industry can bounce back “as soon as international travel is conducive,” while adding: “The industry is constantly facing challenges in a volatile environment. The airport opening proto-col is at its final stages. We are waiting for the approval of the Health Ministry. As soon as that is done, the announcement will be made to reopen airports for international guests.”

The SLTDA Chairperson also encouraged international visitors to download the UNDP funded travel app incorporated into Sri Lanka’s immigration and emigration online visa application that is pending approval from the cabinet.

These measures would be bolstered by news on the COVID-19 vaccine front with some of the island’s main markets witnessing its rollout as 2020 came to a close, signalling that there may be some respite on the horizon.