Tourism recovery: A dire need for Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Tourism recovery: A dire need for Sri Lanka

10 January, 2021

As Sri Lanka’s struggle with the pandemic enters the next phase, the decision to open the borders for travellers is welcomed by hundreds of thousands of persons engaged in the industry in various capacities, particularly those who lost employment. The country was deprived of nearly US$ 4 billion as the third-largest foreign exchange contributor. When the impact of the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019 was on the recovery path satisfactorily, the Covid-19 pandemic gave a sucker punch to the industry, striking harder than the Easter bombing. This time around, the impact is global where the tourists themselves are affected in their own countries.

With the recent identification of the new variety of the Coronavirus in the UK, the hopes of a rapid recovery are somewhat bleak at present. European countries are taking maximum precautions to prevent the spread of the virus that seems to escalate much faster than on the previous occasion. The news reports of a South African Coronavirus variance has popped-up, presenting more uncertainty to world travellers. The precariousness the virus produces continues to affect travellers’ anxiety throughout the world. Therefore, re-opening strategies of the borders would have to be tailored to the specific context. However, the Government’s decision has come with proper evaluations from the health authorities who hold the final say at present.

The authorities are clearly in control of the Covid-19 pandemic situation at present, and it seems that it will continue. The country has shown a steady growth in tourist arrivals during the past several years until the Easter Sunday and Covid-19 catastrophies. Besides, the global tourism sector has accounted for a substantial growth while the South Asian region has shown a growth of 6.6 percent in 2019 as per the World Travel and Tourism Council. (Only Sri Lanka was affected during 2019). The growth was attributed to factors such as rising income, low-cost carriers, the ease of bookings through internet-based services, and fierce competition between countries. Unfortunately, the growth was severely impacted by the emergence of Covid-19 in late 2019.

The industry heaved a sigh of relief at the arrival of 185 tourists from Ukraine after a lapse of nearly ten months, ending a nasty drought. Several more groups are scheduled to visit at the time of writing this article. The Government has finally started welcoming travellers from the world once again. This would be a definite boost to recommence the recovery of tourism. The clear control the Sri Lankan authorities have on the second wave of Covid-19 may have paved the way to resume tourist arrivals. The travel-hungry tourists from the world over will take a cue from the Ukrainians and would likely visit Sri Lanka in the coming months.

Travel bubbles

The Government’s strategy is to create travel bubbles or bio-bubbles where a particular group travels in isolation. They will be kept away from the public and their itineraries will be planned to visit tourist sites at specific timeframes to avoid mixing with others. The Ukrainian tour groups will be an effective pilot program for the Sri Lankan authorities. Therefore, a close scrutiny is necessary to iron out any possible hindrances that may arise from the pilot project.

After publishing the comprehensive sector re-opening strategy in line with strict health guidelines, the tourism authorities are aiming to rebuild the trust and confidence of potential tourists. However, a strong reassurance from the Government to the world is a dire need, signalling that the country is fully geared to manage safety and hygiene standards. This message should be delivered to all prospective tourists throughout the world.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), as the Government authority tasked with the planning and development of tourism and related industries will be the most important body to face the possible challenges arising from the ongoing health hazard. They have already taken constructive action to assist the industry. According to the sources, the SLTDA has prepared all-inclusive guidelines on re-opening the airport and gradually resuming tourism, in collaboration with the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 Clinical Management and Expert Committee.

In an effort to establish a collective method to set-up common guidelines, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has introduced the ‘Safe Travel Stamp’ allowing travellers to recognise the establishments that are adapting to standard health and hygiene protocols. Prepared with the backing of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the stamp will support travellers around the world to recognise the certified airports, hotels, restaurants, airlines and so forth.

Sri Lanka has received the Safe Travel Stamp with the establishment of the required protocol implemented by the related authorities. According to SLTDA, this includes an inspection by the auditing firm KPMG for ‘Safe and Secure’ certification on the steps taken by Sri Lanka to ensure safety, comfort, and the confidence of incoming tourists. However, it is not clear whether the involvement of KPMG (or any other auditing company) is a mandatory requirement by the WTTC or whether it is an additional precaution taken by the authorities.

The present arrangement, according to SLTDA, is to offer a mandatory 14-day quarantine period limited to Level 1 hotel where the tourists are permitted to stay within the premises. They are allowed to travel only to isolated areas with the exclusive group they belong to. However, the travellers on longer periods will be permitted to stay in Level 2 hotels and visit selected tourist destinations with a registered tour guide. Once again, accommodation will be restricted to KPMG certified hotels.

Safe travel stamp

As per the current trends and surveys, the travel preferences on the resumption of travel indicate that the recovery will be domestic and gradually move towards regional. Therefore, the authorities are concentrating more on tourists from neighbouring countries and China. Due to the grave situation prevailing in India a huge base has to be temporarily side-lined as per industry experts. However, the lucrative Chinese market is available as they are in full control of the pandemic.

The tourism fraternity is the most elated group to receive the news of tourist arrivals. An industry veteran with over 40 year’s experience said the move was an absolute must for the country. However, he is of the view that the SLTDA role has to be more of a facilitator rather than a mere tour operator. He said the momentum initiated by the Government should continue relentlessly until the full recovery of the industry, adding that the tourism authorities should have more intimation with the industry experts in the decision-making process to take the effort forward.

The growth opportunity for Sri Lanka in tourism would be enormous if the post-pandemic situation is managed properly. Sri Lanka, placed as 95th in the most affected countries list of Covid-19, would have an enhanced chance for tourism as one of the good countries with resilience to face health challenges if any in the future. According to expert opinion, Sri Lanka already has top end above average service levels in the world concerning tourism. With proper awareness campaigns in pre-identified markets that are already opened to outbound travel, the country will be able to return to normalcy in tourism faster than many other countries. While the country continues to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, the potential in the travel sector can be harnessed to contribute to the ailing economic recovery.

At this crucial juncture the entire country including the private and public sector establishments must cooperate to comply with health standards to assist the industry. There is no other avenue to cover the colossal loss of foreign exchange that was generated through tourism other than developing the industry. The message delivered to the world on the consistency of Sri Lankan health standards will help potential travellers to rebuild trust and confidence.