Zulfath Saheed assesses Sri Lanka’s tourism prospects following the Easter Sunday chaos

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is reeling from the effects of the Easter Sunday attacks, which targeted several places of worship as well as prominent hotels in the commercial capital. Among the more than 250 lives lost were those of 40 tourists hailing from different parts of the world.

While the international community has stood in solidarity with Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the deadly attacks, several countries issued advisories warning their citizens against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.

The uptick in tourist arrivals to the island in recent times was almost 10 years in the making with Sri Lanka having to invest substantially in revamping its image as a global destination of choice in the postwar era. The erstwhile Ceylon was even named the top destination of choice for 2019 by leading travel guide Lonely Planet and others, only to have its prospects and reputation marred by the dastardly acts of terror.

Indeed, both the authorities and industry players have pledged to do their utmost to revive tourism, and ensure that essential livelihoods and valuable foreign exchange aren’t compromised. But the fallout from the bombings could have major implications for the hospitality sector in general as well as the nation at large.

SITUATION REPORT Speaking to reporters in late April, the then Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Deshamanya Dr. Kishu Gomes told reporters that tourist arrivals in Colombo would fall by 50 percent over the ensuing two months alongside a 30 percent drop in the outstations.

He went on to note that Sri Lanka is likely to forgo tourism earnings to the tune of approximately US$ 750 million this year in the light of the attacks, posing a considerable challenge to the industry, which accounts for around five percent of GDP.

Whereas Sri Lanka had targeted three million tourist arrivals in 2019, this figure has been downgraded to about two million, according to SLTDA’s chairman.

CANCELLATION TSUNAMI An analysis by ForwardKeys, which forecasts future travel patterns by analysing flight booking transactions, reveals that “a tidal wave of cancellations has hit Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the horrendous terror attacks of Easter Sunday.”

It continues: “In the three days immediately after the bombings, cancellations of existing bookings surged 86.2 percent whilst new bookings fell away. In Sri Lanka’s most important source markets, more people cancelled existing flights than made bookings on the equivalent day last year.”

“In order of size, that comprises India, China, the UK, Australia, Germany and France. Forward bookings for July and August, which had been running 2.6 percent ahead of last year as of 20 April, fell to 0.3 percent behind as of 23 April,” ForwardKeys adds.

PRIOR EXPERIENCE Recovering from the recent tragedy is not impossible but depends on the strategy implemented and relevant support received by the industry especially over the short to medium terms.

Citing global examples, Jameson Wong of ForwardKeys observes: “If we look back at past terrorist atrocities, it is interesting to note how different the impacts can be. In the wake of the bloody siege at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, bookings suffered a similar collapse in the immediate aftermath; however, within less than two weeks, international arrivals returned to growth. By comparison, it has taken more than three years to see a Tunisian tourism recovery following the massacre on the beach in Sousse in 2015.”

To gain a regional perspective, one could also look to the aftermath of the Bali bombings in 2002 or the Mumbai attacks of 2008, which may have been on a different scale but did target the respective countries’ tourist hotspots. And Sri Lanka’s tourism industry itself bounced back from the effects of a protracted civil war albeit taking many years to fully recover.

FORWARD STRATEGY The Sri Lankan tourism authorities have sought to reassure the world of their commitment to ensure the safety of tourists with a task force being assigned to support the recovery.

Sri Lanka Tourism also went ahead with its representation at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai from 28 April to 1 May and addressed the tourism community at the 5th UNWTO World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism in early May. Similarly, the only tourism and travel fair in Sri Lanka –  ‘Sancharaka Udawa’ – is scheduled to be held on 21 and 22 June.

As the custodian of what is a key industry, SLTDA has pledged to continue with the destination brand recovery process, with its former chairman asserting that “we cannot allow ourselves to become paralysed by fear; nearly half a million families across the island depend on us for their daily living; the impact on our economy must be mitigated.”

Gomes also emphasises that “addressing security issues is a prerequisite for the revival of tourism.”