After the disaster on April 21, it becomes imperative to rethink the development landscape of Sri Lankan and Indian businesses. The new vision must integrate the business communities in the two countries, and one important — affected — business, that needs quick business response is tourism.
It is apparent that tourism is a mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy. It contributed US $575.9 million in 2010, US $2.9 billion in 2015 and US $ 4.4 billion in 2018. A US $5.5 billion target exists for 2019. Tourist arrivals have increased from 6,54, 476 in 2010 (1,26,882, 19.4 per cent Indians) to 1.8 million in 2015 (3,16,247, 17.5 per cent Indians); and, 2.3 million in 2018 (4,24,887, 18.2 per cent Indians). The estimated arrivals are three million for end-2019 and we expect 5,50,000 from India.
Though Sri Lanka’s tourism industry quickly resurrected after the tsunami, the April 2019 disaster is different. President Maithripala Sirisena has already pledged to restore the industry and promised the appointment of a cabinet sub-committee to study how to promote tourism, including the provision of concessionary financial assistance. And the government has approved some proposals already. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reassured fast-tracked financial support for tourism revival. It is an urgent requirement; especially due to heavy cancellations of future room bookings.
Then, there is psychological trauma, both domestically and internationally, in tourists and businessmen. In this context, we have to look at tourism priorities. One is air travel: Air Lanka has lost commuters very badly because the blasts have affected “positive location interest” and that could affect investors. Therefore, customer confidence restoration in this aspect is essential.
Taking the destination to customers and conveying what it stands for as an idea is an endeavour undertaken through several means. It was successfully done in the past which made Sri Lanka one of the world’s best destinations, until April 20. The challenge now is to return to those glory days. Discussions have been held with several tourist associations in India to hold a seminar in Delhi to create awareness amongst the tourism-clientele groups. After the recent, unfortunate episode, the Indian interlocutors think that the “timing is wrong” for this exercise. Contrarily, I believe that this is the “gestation period” for advertising the destinations well, influencing potential tourists psychologically so their interest levels see a rebound.
At present, emergency regulations and night curfews are limited to facilitate investigations. Hopefully, these will be over soon. However, national security is the priority. These measures, in fact, might help in finding hidden, destructive materials, if any, which can only enhance the confidence levels about a tourist destination. In the interim, tourist arrivals can be planned on a selective destination basis. This status has to be coordinated with Indian businesses.
The online visa system works without hitches. The government halted the “free visas” offered from May 2019. If the free visa is re-introduced, it will attract tourists. However, in the backdrop of such a disaster, it will not get an easy nod. Instead, tighter visa/ border control systems will be demanded. Therefore, we must find a middle path solution, with the introduction of improved border security systems and technology.
Already vehicular movements transferring tourists at the airport have been normalised. There will be unavoidable tighter security checks. If “guest country” tourist operatives undertake adequate security responsibility of tourists arriving in Colombo, it may motivate early relaxations. The “guest country” travel and tour companies can thus assist the “host country” businesses. Normalcy is reassured when the “guest country” motivates the security consciousness of customers.
It is also reported that international social media influencers who arrived in the country this week are planning to collaborate on priority with Sri Lanka Tourism (SLT) to help it tide over this difficult time.
If the image of the country as resilient is not created, and tales of woe are the only messages we give out, it will not enhance our destination image. We can learn from other countries on how to rebound post-disaster.
The recent disaster has also shown the weaknesses of the Sri Lankan hotel industry’s security systems. In some countries, including Sri Lanka, there are basic security measures that are missing in the hotels — overall scanning and entry point management, for instance.
The government and trade stakeholders in the private sector should give messages of resilience and reflect a resolve to overcome devastation, not only by rebuilding, but also through attitudinal change. The President, Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition attending mass with the cardinal of the Catholic church — it was televised because the churches were shut — was a starting point.
Think-tanks should also support the Indian industry in efforts to evolve a cohesive plan using a tourism disaster-management framework for sustainable outbound tourism. And this should be done in Sri Lanka too by the inbound tour and travel industry.
In addition to all this, getting endorsements by celebrity figures in order to motivate tourists and organising a mega international event in Colombo should be undertaken. Already SLT has started this in Dubai. Further, it will address the Fifth UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism in San Sebastian in Spain; and, the Sri Lanka Conventions Bureau will represent the country at the IMEX in Frankfurt. The only tourism and travel fair will also be held in Sri Lanka during the first week of June. These will all be productive endeavours.
Looking at Indian events, it is satisfying to mention that SLT will participate in the travel fair in Kolkata, and, alongwith the High Commission, it will organise a MICE (Meeting, Incentive, Conference, and Events) event in Kolkata. In August, there will be a tourism road show in Delhi organised by SLT in association with the High Commission. A few more road shows will be held in selected metro cities in India. These are good opportunities for interaction for those in India.
Some must still be having fears and concerns about the Sri Lankan situation, and these should be reviewed. To address them, it is best to quote the chairman of SLT who said, “We cannot allow ourselves to become paralysed by fear”. He continued: “We are working to regain the confidence of global travellers and operators by demonstrating that Sri Lanka’s response to the incidents is effective, while reassuring future tourists that all appropriate steps are being taken by the Sri Lanka Government to prevent any future incidents and ensure the continued safety and security of tourists within the country.”
It is necessary to convert the disaster into a business opportunity. Not only will it fulfill the target of 5,50,000 Indian visitors to Sri Lanka, it will also increase the profits of Indian companies too. Sri Lanka paid a big price on April 21, and has to strive to swiftly return to a better, more positive time with much dedication, cooperation, collaboration and large-hearted spirit. Let us go along together!
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 16, 2019 under the title ‘Disaster and opportunity’. The writer is the high commissioner of Sri Lanka in India.