Sri Lanka tourism’s rocky road to recovery     Follow

Compared to the 180,429 visitors in April last year, arrivals in April 2019 dropped 7.5 percent to 166,975 due to the terror attacks on the 21st. 

The Tourism Ministry anticipates a 30 percent dip by yearend, i.e. achieve around 2 million arrivals in total for this year. With 0.9 million actual arrivals in the first 4 months of the year, the expectation is for another 1.1 million tourists  to visit Sri Lanka, over the balance 8 months.

In the aftermath of the horrific Easter Sunday bombings, the obvious and immediate reaction is to increase security measures and regain tourists with marketing campaigns. However, a more credible approach would also be to overcome internal conflicts and ward off terrorism. This in turn would be a great signal for tourists who would no longer see any danger of travelling to Sri Lanka. 

The swift action taken thus far; to reassure citizens that they are safe and visitors that ‘life goes on’- will no doubt ensure that the long term fall out is limited.


More resilient to shocks
The hotel industry is becoming more resilient to shocks from terrorism. In effect, the time that it takes for destinations to recover from these shocks has significantly decreased over the past 15 years. It took New York hotels 34 months to recover from the 9/11 attacks as compared to the 12 months Madrid required to recover from the 2003 Train bombs. The World Travel and Tourism Council pegs a 13-month recovery as the average time needed for affected capital cities to return to prior levels of tourism. 

As per the Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism, the country can bounce back within 13 months or even earlier. He is optimistic that it will revert to growth mode in two months. This can only happen when the Ministry of Tourism works in tandem with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministries of Aviation, Culture, Economic affairs and  all stakeholders in the private sector - where everyone is on  the ‘same page with a common purpose’. 


Welcomes financial relief package
The travel and tourism industry has already welcomed the government’s financial relief package to support the industry. With declining occupancy rates, the next 12 – 13 months will be a difficult period for hotels. The earliest signs of recovery (getting-out-of-red) will be when occupancy gains compare with the year before. How soon this occurs is dependent on how successfully the government undertakes the following action:

  • Bring back ‘normalcy’ as soon as possible bearing in mind that ‘terrorism’ is now an omnipresent worldwide phenomenon. The design and implementation of security protocols with the capability to respond quickly and efficiently to threats of terrorism should convince all that the government is perpetually in pro-active mode. Only then should any proposed security audit by an independent body be carried out.
  • Co-ordinate recovery activities with the ministry of tourism, national tourist organizations, foreign tour operators, local travel organizers, airline companies (national and international), hoteliers, and other related organizations.
  • Work towards having the travel advisories issued by many countries revised as early as possible. Fortunately, over the past 10 years there appears to be a shift in mentality among travellers and companies, with the emergence of a ‘carry on as normal’ culture in response to terrorism. Tourists who are prepared to visit Sri Lanka despite the adverse travel advisories issued by their governments face another hurdle in having to pay high insurance premiums in their country of origin. 
  • A suggestion made by some foreigners, if the industry could persuade Sri Lankan Insurance companies to come up with a low priced temporary travel insurance scheme for visitors to Sri Lanka merits consideration.
  • Speak in ‘one (credible) voice’, especially when disseminating information about the crisis. The messaging must be coherent and uncomplicated. 
  • Keep the media regularly informed with accurate information on steps taken to solve the problem and restore normalcy. Use the media to communicate positive facts.
  • Invite bloggers, journalists, tour operators and travel agents to the destination to not only show them the real situation, but also that Sri Lanka regains and remains a positive association  in the minds of potential ‘holiday makers’. Already a team of bloggers from 5 countries have arrived and that is a promising start. 
  • It is a straight forward job to know which countries to target with promotional marketing. We already have data showing which countries provided the most tourists and with every passing day, which show the biggest drops. The Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism states that they will continue to take part in the 25 or more travel and tourism fairs lined up for the rest of  2019. Well and good – so long as the ‘spend’ is concentrated towards countries that matter most, as well as those who can assist us get to our feet swiftly. 
  • Perhaps the best ambassadors for tourism for Sri Lanka are the tourist themselves. Making sure that the people who brave a post - 21st April visit, are provided a memorable experience from start to finish. The inconvenience for arriving and especially departing passengers currently experienced unless immediately rectified can boomerang on all efforts.
  • Part of the promotional campaign to include welcome posters at the Airport in visitors’ languages and welcome text messages in home languages.

To summarize, the government and the hospitality industry alike should take measures to re-boost the tourism sector once the situation has normalized, focusing on bringing back  the tourists, changing  perceptions  through media by creating impactful communications campaigns and collaborating to develop strategies to attract 
new tourists.
(Shafeek Wahab – Editor, ‘Hospitality Sri Lanka’, Consultant, Trainer and Ex-Hotelier could be contacted on: [email protected])

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