A long-term view on tourism | Sunday Observer

A long-term view on tourism

8 November, 2020

While there is hardly any doubt that all sectors of the economy have been hit very hard by the ongoing pandemic, there is one sector in particular that has virtually been decimated – global tourism and travel. Global tourism has plummeted to such low levels that experts are predicting a comeback only in 2024. This is bad news for countries such as Sri Lanka, which depend on tourism for a major part of the earnings.

For Sri Lanka, this is a double blow. It came just as the tourism industry was making a rapid recovery after the tragic events of Easter 2019. The only consolation is that this time, we are not alone.

But there are signs that tourism is picking up gradually around the world as many countries have controlled the pandemic to some extent. The European Union started this trend and other countries are joining in. We will have to live with the contagion for a couple more years and it will not be possible to keep our borders entirely closed during such a long period of time. The Government has to devise a tourism strategy that secures the health of locals without necessarily losing the tourism dollars.

The Government must take a long term view on how tourism could be revived once the present wave of the pandemic is controlled. This will be very reassuring to potential tourists who wish to come here to enjoy the world famous traditional Sri Lankan hospitality.

It is also encouraging to note that several major airlines including Emirates and Etihad of the UAE have already started flights from Colombo. Some airlines new to our market are literally waiting in the wings to commence flights if the tourism industry takes off successfully post-Covid-19.

The authorities have earlier proposed a US$ 100 fee that will be levied from tourists at least for an initial period. Although a debate has ensued on this, it is justified due to the expenses incurred on multiple PCR tests and additional health precautions. If at any point of time the pandemic threat is fully eradicated (perhaps when a vaccine is made available), this can be waived off. It is always better to be safe than sorry and one cannot take a chance under the present circumstances.

It has been suggested that up to one million Sri Lankans are benefiting directly or indirectly from tourism related enterprises and activities, from waiters in hotels to souvenir sellers. While the big hotel chains can somehow survive a lockdown and lack of tourists, one can imagine the fate of small-time tourism operators including small guest house/airbnb owners, drivers and guides and shop owners. For many of these individuals, tourism is their sole income avenue. Once tourism booms again, tourism jobs will very much be in demand.

The good news is that the Government has launched a concessions program to assist nearly 144,000 individuals who were engaged in the tourism-based livelihoods that were later affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. These measures were recently extended again, considering the prevailing wave of the pandemic. Relief has been made available both at individual and organisation levels.

The Government launched a program to facilitate registered tourist hotels, tourist destination management institutions and the tourist agencies with low-interest loans through the Bank of Ceylon. These loans will be issued at four per cent interest to settle six-month wages of their staff.

Moreover, a grace period was introduced for the registered tourism institutions to settle their water and electricity bills. Any vehicles leased by tourism industry stakeholders will also be eligible for grace period declared for vehicle leasing. These are indeed welcome steps as the industry, one of the key foreign exchange earners for the country, strives to find its feet again in a Covid-19 landscape which has even affected domestic tourism.

This period is also an opportunity for tourism authorities to study the methods adopted by other countries in our region and elsewhere to re-start their tourism industries even while the pandemic rages on. Most countries have already trialled “air bubbles and corridors” with other countries where on-arrival quarantine is not necessary.

Some others are giving long-term visas to wealthy tourists who would like to spend up to a year in their countries. Some countries also require visitors to spend up to 14 days in a particular hotel or area under an all-inclusive arrangement, which serves a double purpose as a sort of quarantine. Our authorities should weigh the pros and cons of these measures and see which measures can be implemented here, if at all.

Once the pandemic is under control, there is an acute need for a tourism promotional campaign through traditional and social media globally to highlight Sri Lanka’s attraction and hospitality industry. This should reassure any ‘on the fence’ tourists that Sri Lanka is a safe destination to visit, both security and health wise. For many discerning tourists, a flat fee for testing like US$ 100 will be a small price to pay for that peace of mind.

This ‘reset’ will also be a god opportunity for travel and tourism planners to analyse shortcomings in the inbound travel industry and take corrective steps. That will help the industry to realise the initial goal of 2.5 million tourists per year within the next few years, giving a new sense of purpose and direction to the industry, one of the most important cogs in our economic wheel.