Tourism: Picking up the pieces after the blasts | Sunday Observer

Tourism: Picking up the pieces after the blasts

Nothing seemed out of place this Easter morning. Guests at Aliya Resort and Spa in Audangawa, Sigiriya, were having their breakfast. Lahiru Sameera- the 33-year-old Food and Beverages Manager at the resort was engaged in his usual morning routine when a guest requested him to turn on the television news . And then, everything changed.

It was a little after 9.00 a.m. The initial reports were about the ‘explosions’, later established to be suicide bomb attacks by a group of terrorists who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo Kochchikade and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. Sameera also learnt that the Zion Church in Batticaloa was also attacked.

Then followed the news reports on the attacks on luxury hotels- Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury. The breakfast buffet at the Taj Samudra was also a target but when the detonation failed the terrorist blew himself up instead at the Tropical Inn in Dehiwala.

“My first reaction was to check up on my friends who were working in the hotels in Colombo, and their guests. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the attacks. I just wanted everyone to be safe,” Sameera told the Sunday Observer.

Most weren’t safe and many died. The death toll of the Easter Sunday bombings reached 257. The number included 43 foreign nationals. There were 10 Indians, eight from the United Kingdom, six Chinese, three from Denmark, three Dutch nationals, two from Turkey, two from the US, two Saudi nationals, two from Spain, and one each from Portugal, Bangladesh, Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan. Forty-one others were injured.

It didn’t take too long for Sameera to understand that famous spots where foreign tourists gathered were attacked. This is the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that foreign nationals were targeted and killed.

As the news coverage on the Easter bomb blasts streamed in on the television at Aliya, a sudden realisation struck Sameera.

“I thought ‘Oh! Our tourism industry will be badly impacted by these bombings’,” he said.

And he was right, as the attacks set Sri Lanka back to the war-era with barricades, curfews and heightened security measures. Some countries issued travel advisories and discouraged non-essential travel to Sri Lanka as it was branded a ‘high-risk’ country. This included the key markets the country attracts- India, United Kingdom, China and Germany.

Aftermath

The aftermath of these warnings has a devastating effect on the industry that is one of Sri Lanka’s top foreign currency earners which accounted for USD 3.2 billion from January to September 2018 and a major employment generator creating 169,003 direct and 219, 484 indirect jobs in 2018, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. The industry showed no sign of slowing down. During the first eight months of last year the One Stop Unit of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) has received proposals for 100 new hotel projects with an investment value of USD 830 million.

Sri Lanka drew 2.3 million tourists in 2018, and was aiming at three million tourists this year. Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) and the SLTDA Kishu Gomes told the Sunday Observer that they predict only a 20-30 per cent decrease of tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka from last year following the Easter bomb blasts. But many industry experts are not as hopeful as the projected loss of revenue for this year is around USD 1.5 billion.

This comes under six months after Sri Lanka was named the top destination to travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet. The announcement was doomed since its inception, as shortly after several travel alerts and warnings were slapped against the country due to the political unrest in late October to November. Around the same time the tourism tagline ‘So Sri Lanka’ was launched replacing ‘Wonder of Asia’ at World Travel Mart 2018 in ExCel London.

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has shown resilience to acts of terror and natural disasters in the past. In 2004, the country attracted 566,202 tourists and there were 549,308 tourist arrivals in the period after the Tsunami which resulted in the deaths of 35,000 people. During the height of the war it drew 438, 475 arrivals in 2008, 447, 890 in 2009 and the numbers gradually grew from 654, 476 to last year’s 2.3million.

The President of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) Sanath Ukwatte said this was a rapid increase, and now the hotel industry has USD 10 billion worth of investments. The room capacity, he said, has grown from 8,000 in 2009 to 30,000.

It is also important to note that terrorism is a global phenomenon. Previous attacks include the series of coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015 which left 130 dead and in December the same year 14 people were shot dead in San Bernardino, California.

Another ISIS claimed attack took place in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016, where a suicide bomber attacked Istanbul, Turkey in March 19, 2016 killing four and again an attack on June 28 the same year killed 44 at the Ataturk International Airport. Last year over 200 were killed in a terrorist attack in South-West Syria.

Global sympathy

Analysis of a few terrorist hit tourist destinations shows that they took up to a year or more to restore tourist arrivals to how it was before the attacks. Speaking to Bloomberg Economics, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said it would take an year or one-and a half for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry to bounce back.

He ensured that many of the incidents which happened a week ago will not happen again.

Sri Lanka has also had sympathy from the global community. Fifty-three-year-old Giovanni of Italy who arrived before the Easter bombings said he will continue to visit in Sri Lanka, despite the attacks, as ‘it can happen anywhere in the world’.

“Italy also had mafia shootings and tourists didn’t stop coming there,” he added.

British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP leading a debate in the House of Commons on the Easter Sunday attacks said,“Today, we stand in solidarity with the Government and people of Sri Lanka, who have made enormous strides towards stability and peace following the conclusion of the civil war almost exactly ten years ago. To attack Christian worshippers at Easter, which is a celebration of peace and the holiest day in the Christian calendar, betrays in the attackers an absence of the most basic values of humanity.”

Former President of Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLITO) Mahen Kariyawasam said that it is essential to issue an official security statement ensuring the country is safe. Though several arrests were made and unofficially security personnel have assured that the terrorist threat in the country is contained and the Government banned ISIS inspired National Thowheed Jaamat (NTJ) and Jaamiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI) which were behind the bomb blast, no official statement has been issued by the State thus far.

“We do not have time to lag behind. The Government has to act fast,” Kariyawasam said adding that the delays will only cause more harm to the tourism industry.

The former president of SLITO suggested that the best way to approach the security issue is by encouraging a trusted international security division to issue a statement on Sri Lanka’s security to put potential tourists at ease.

Data provider ForwardKeys has reported that three days after the Easter attacks cancellation of flight bookings surged 86.2 per cent, while a spokes man for SLTDA said there is a 60 per cent of cancellations in hotel bookings across the country.

In an attempt to revive the industry the Government is mulling a strategy that includes establishing security measures, tax concessions on purchase of security equipment and launching a global promotional campaign.

Tourism Chief Gomes said they have identified a global public relations company which has managed crises of this level to draw up the promotional campaign and they are working on finalising the deal.

Gomes said that till the industry rejuvenates it will have to depend on rich local tourists. He encouraged local companies to continue having their events at hotels to support them during this time.

Former Chairman of the SLTPB, Dr Rohantha Athukorala said that the global traveller is now immune to issues such as earthquakes, tsunamis and terror attacks in key travel destinations, and thus the recovery process will be much faster for a typical tourism brand.

“The key issue faced with a terror attack is that the cost of travel insurance increases and then a destination becomes too expensive for a visitor, so, there are many variables to manage in an post attack period ,” he told the Sunday Observer explaining that having a strong brand is crucial during the recovery period.

He cited examples from how Thailand reacted when in 2015 bomb blasts in the Eswaran Shrine killed 20 and injured almost 200 people and two bombs exploded in 2016 in the tourist hub of Hua Hin. One person died and 23 were injured including tourists. Last year a pipe bomb ripped a crowded street leaving 25 critically injured. On January 22 a motorcycle bomb exploded killing three people and dozens injured’. But with well-planned campaigns Thailand was able to restore its tourism industry.

“Sadly,” Dr. Athukorale said, “Sri Lanka does not have this same track record on brand building whilst on the security front there are many questions been asked as we speak”.

A special financial package will be rolled out tomorrow (Monday 6) to aid the affected tourism sector.

Taking to Twitter State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne said the new program which will be implemented from next week is expected to help revive the tourism sector.

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