Tourism in tatters

Print edition : July 05, 2019

An Indian hotel project coming up in Galle Face, Colombo. Photo: R.K. Radhakrishnan

A street in Galle that is usually crowded with tourists is now empty. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

An empty restaurant at a hotel in Hikkaduwa. The town, in the south west, used to be a top tourist attraction for board-surfing and sparkling clear waters, perfect for snorkelling. Today, of 27 hotels, very few are still open. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Tourism, one of the pillars of the Sri Lankan economy, has taken a beating with the Easter blasts, leading to empty flights and mass cancellations of hotel reservations.

The economy class of Sri Lankan Airlines UL 122 from Chennai to Colombo on May 25 was almost full. This was not surprising because April and May, despite the searing heat of Sri Lanka, are the months when holiday travel peaks from India.

An hour later, after touchdown at the Bandaranaike International Airport, as this correspondent checked out of immigration in a breeze, it became clear that almost all the passengers who were on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight were taking connecting flights to destinations out of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Airlines offers competitive fares on many routes and the cash-conscious Indian traveller has always preferred to use Colombo as a transit stop before flying to destinations in Europe and Asia.

There was hardly anyone, barring Sri Lankan nationals, whose destination was Colombo or the charming tourist spots around the Emerald Isle. It was not always like this. Tourism in Sri Lanka was booming (the industry had an all-time-high revenue of $4 billion in 2018 and it was expected to cross $4.5 billion this year) until the blasts shook the country on April 21. Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka as a must-visit destination for the year in 2019, and massive tourism-related infrastructure has come up or was coming up at a frenetic pace.

Sri Lanka had a reputation as a value-for-money tourist destination and crime was generally low. Above all, it did not have the kind of dangers that is normally associated with the Third World.

All that changed in just a few minutes on April 21 after a series of blasts across Sri Lanka killed over 250 people. Soon after the carnage came the mass cancellation of room reservations as tour groups put their Sri Lanka itineraries on hold in deference to the travel advisories put out by their countries. India, which rarely issues a travel advisory against visiting Sri Lanka, also issued one (which was withdrawn towards the end of May). “We advised our clients [hotels] not to charge a cancellation fee because this was not a problem created by those travelling,” said Saman, a travel agent, who runs his own tour business, Heritage Travels. Saman lost two big groups from Puducherry in south India, among others. “I am sure they will come back when they see that the blasts were an aberration here,” he added.

Negambo, a town barely a 15-minute drive from the airport, was a favourite stopover for many transit passengers because the tourist town offers everything that a tourist desires in a short transit—beautiful beaches, bonfire parties, dance and music, a choice of cuisine and inexpensive alcohol, and professional ayurvedic massages that Sri Lanka takes great pride in showcasing. Because Negambo was close to the airport, it never had an off-season and the room rates were high compared with the off-season rates in other parts of Sri Lanka.

But today, more than a month after the blasts, Negambo looks like a ghost town. The iconic Hotel Road in the town is where both sides of the road are lined with hotels and upcoming massive projects belonging to local hoteliers and major international chains. The government had relaxed liquor permit rules, and establishments along the road are now allowed to own a liquor licence.

However, there were few guests in the 200-room hotel that this correspondent was staying. The situation was the same across the cities this correspondent visited—no other guest in the hotel in Mullaitivu, just a few kilometers from the spot of the last stand of the Tamil Tigers in the Nandikadal Lagoon; a few Red Cross representatives in a hotel in the eastern coast city of Batticaloa, and a few Indian families who did not have the option to cancel their tickets and reservations at the hotel in Beruwala, a town in the southern tourist belt that spans from Colombo all the way to Tangalle, about 200 kilometres away.

Fear and frisking

The story in cosmopolitan Colombo was no different. Fear of another attack hangs in the air in almost all hotels. Security is tight: all vehicles are checked thoroughly; guests are frisked each time they come back to the hotel, and baggage-screening is more than a mere routine. Machine-gun toting Sri Lankan special forces personnel guard the entrances and perimeter of the main hotels, supplemented by the hotels’ own security. Shangri-La, where one of the bombs went off, was closed until early June, while Cinnamon Grand, another hotel which was a target, is up and running with a much higher level of security.

The first to open after the attack was Kingsbury, a hotel just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La. Taj Samudra, the hotel whose guests had a miraculous escape because the trigger mechanism of the bomb did not work, has sandbag bunkers at critical points in the property. The hotel staff is apologetic about the additional security, but that is also the reason why some guests show up. “This is among the safest of places to have a meal,” remarked a Sri Lankan official. “The added security is not exactly a welcome sign for a hotel, but unfortunately, it is necessary now,” he added.

Across Colombo, malls, restaurants and public places get too few footfalls these days. Almost two months later, there is still tension and apprehension all around and resignation over where the country is headed. “The LTTE years are still fresh in my mind. At the first hint of trouble, people avoid crowded places,” said a long-time resident of Colombo who did not want to be named.

President Maithripala Sirisena realises the importance of trade to the country’s economy. One of his first requests to heads of missions in Colombo was to consider withdrawing the travel advisories they had put out. But despite many countries withdrawing them, tourist traffic has not picked up. Hotels, restaurants and banquets are taking a pounding—multiple instances of wedding parties being asked to cut down on the number of guests and keep it simple are emerging from hotels and places of worship. Many smaller hotels have shut shop, unable to pay for the upkeep.

Anecdotal evidence from India indicates that Sri Lanka has cooled off as a tourist destination. The death of mid-level politicians from Karnataka has shocked the State, leading to cancellations. Some tour operators who organise spiritual trips along the made-up Ramayana trail have backed off for the year.

The reporting time at the airport has now been increased to four hours ahead of a flight. Security is tight but not as menacing as in Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. There are multiple checkpoints and bags are screened multiple times before they are loaded on to the aircraft. Despite the pleasant security personnel, the multi-tier security at the airport makes both arrival and departure not-very-pleasant experiences.

No wonder that the Sri Lankan tourist arrivals, which was averaging over 2.4 lakh every month between January and March, suddenly fell to 1.7 lakh in April, with almost all the cancellations coming after April 21. If the trend of tourist arrivals in the first three months of the year had held, Sri Lanka would have crossed the milestone of a million tourists by end April. Because of the blasts, the number declined to 9.1 lakh (8.9 lakh during the same period in 2018), according to the Tourism Department’s official statistics.

“Hotel occupancy has been between 3 per cent and 5 per cent,” said the manager of a hotel where this correspondent was staying. Speaking to a local television channel, News 1st, on June 6, the president of the Sri Lanka Hotels Association, Sanath Ukwatte, said tourist bookings had dropped from 70 per cent to 7 per cent. A June 4 report in EconomyNext, a Web news portal, said arrivals fell 70 per cent to 37,000 in May 2019. The months of April, May and June and September and October are considered Sri Lanka’s off-peak tourist season when arrivals usually fall, but there are no parallels from the recent past with which the current dip in traffic can be compared.

Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board (SLTPB) chairman Kishu Gomes told EconomyNext that with security being tightened to ensure safety for visitors, the number of arrivals is expected to go up. The first sign of an improvement in the situation will be seen at the Colombo International Logistics Conference 2019 in August, organised to promote the island’s attractions as an international logistics hub.

The first big festival coming up after the blasts is the August Kandy Perehara, a colourful festival that is celebrated with procession, prayers, song and dance. Those in the tourist trade hope the government attempts to normalise the situation by then and also begin the visa on arrival facility. September is surfing season in Arugam Bay in East Sri Lanka. If tourist arrivals do not pick up by August-September, tour operators say the next peak season, starting October, might also follow suit. Soon after the blasts, some of the cancellations were for the surfing season.

Representatives of the travel trade say that if peace does not hold, Sri Lanka stares at a long winter. Over two lakh people are directly employed in the sector and any more disruptions will kill off Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.

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