Novel coronavirus hurts the country’s tourism industry | Sunday Observer

Novel coronavirus hurts the country’s tourism industry

Coronavirus protection with face masks
Coronavirus protection with face masks

Twenty-four-year-old Kushan Kanchuka is among the hundreds of Chinese speaking tourist guides who were looking forward for the early-year tourist arrivals to the island, especially from China. With the dawn of the Chinese New Year (on January 25) thousands of Chinese nationals opt to travel to other major destinations with Sri Lanka gaining a key spot among them.

Usually during this time, a group of up to 30 Chinese tourists huddled near a Buddha statue or an attractive monument, with cameras clicking away, is a common sight in the island nation. A sight that is welcomed by those involved directly or indirectly in the tourism industry. It could have been the same this year, but then a deadly virus broke out in Wuhan, China.

The novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCov, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has killed 637 people in China and one outside China with 31,211 confirmed coronavirus cases in China and 270 cases in 24 other countries by Friday.

Local Health Authorities took swift measures when Sri Lanka confirmed on January 27 its first coronavirus patient- a 43-year-old Chinese woman from Hubei Province where the virus broke out. She was treated at the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) and has now recovered.

Since the outbreak, the number of visitors from China travelling to the island plummeted, hitting the already struggling tourism industry badly. The industry, one of the key foreign exchange earners, has barely recovered from the Easter Sunday attacks that resulted in a dip in tourist arrivals in the country.

“I already had four cancellations for February. We don’t see any new Chinese tourists these days,” guide Kanchuka told the Sunday Observer. He claimed that Chinese speaking guides are witnessing a wipeout in terms of work. Till when? He doesn’t know, but predicts the ripple effect to have a negative impact up to six months.

Visiting lecturer in tourism at the University of Colombo, Vajira Ratnayaka, said that Chinese tourists are not seasonal travellers, they travel around the year, making them vital to sustain the tourist industry.

Chinese tourists comprise the second largest tourist market in the country. According to statistics of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) China was second to India with 22,363 or 10 per cent of the total arrivals in January this year. In January 2019, there were 26,414 Chinese tourists visiting Sri Lanka.

However, the novel coronavirus is predicted to bring the numbers of Chinese tourists down aggressively. An official representing the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) said this will have a significant effect on ‘everyone’.

This will especially hurt the country’s dream to attract four million tourists and the target to secure five billion US dollars through tourism by the end of this year.

SriLankan Airlines rationalised its services reflecting the ‘current market conditions’. In a statement the national carrier explained, “this is to better reflect the present passenger demand in the wake of a significant reduction in the number of Chinese travellers venturing overseas following the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus epidemic”.The reductions were effective from Thursday (6) until 28 March 2020.

“The (Flight) load factor has come down significantly. It is now as low as 30-40 per cent,” Director/ General Manager Sri Lanka at China Eastern Airlines Eustace Silva said.

China Eastern Airlines is the only airline operating currently from China to Sri Lanka, with two flights per week from Shanghai.

Before the airline operated eight flights from China to the island per week.

Silva who has over 40 years of experience in the industry has seen occasions where travellers refrained from travelling to Sri Lanka, one such event being last year’s Easter Sunday attacks. He also welcomed the authorities’ move not to restrict Chinese travellers to the country.

As an initial step the country stopped issuing visas on arrival to Chinese nationals, now the same criteria is being extended to other nations.

Further commenting on the steps taken to tackle the virus locally, Director, Quarantine Unit at the Ministry of Health, Dr. S. M. Arnold, said travellers coming from China are screened at the airport through thermal scanners to see if they are suffering from the virus.

“In addition to this we initiated a Health Declaration Form (HDF) that was first given only to Chinese nationals but is now given to passengers from other countries too to see what their travel history is,” Dr. Arnold said.

Through the HDF the authorities will collect information such as if the passenger is arriving from China, or has visited China during the last 14 days prior to arriving to Sri Lanka. It is understood that the virus has an incubation period up to 14 days, and hence the authorities are vigilant of this factor.

Dr. Arnold explained that if the passenger showed signs of having the novel coronavirus he or she will be immediately transported to one of the designated hospitals where suspected patients are isolated and treated.

“The other thing we do is to get the addresses or places where the passengers from China or people who have visited China during the last 14 days before arriving in Sri Lanka are staying through the HDFs.

We communicate this information to the Public Health Inspectors in the areas where the passengers are staying for further follow-ups,” the health expert explained.

Stating that he is confident about the system that is in place he added, “visitors will not be restricted from travelling”.

Meanwhile, the Founder and Coordinator of Tourism Study Programs at the University of Colombo, Professor D.A.C. Silva emphasised that now is a good time to revisit tourism policies and give high value to managing disasters affecting tourism and uplifting resilience against such disasters. Resilience building is vital for the country to move forward, he said.

Prof. Silva added that Sri Lanka was lucky to recover from last year’s terrorist attacks favourably and with proper mechanisms in place future disasters could be tackled better.