Resplendent Ceylon: a story of resilience

POST-COVID, SRI LANKA’S TOURISM INDUSTRY NEEDS TO RESET, FOCUS ON REFINING BRANDS AND IMPROVED VISITOR EXPERIENCES, SAYS RESPLENDENT CEYLON FOUNDER MALIK FERNANDO IN THIS THOUGHT-PROVOKING ARTICLE

Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of resilience testing. In the early 70s, we were one of the first in this part of the world to open up for tourism. Then terrorism reared its head in the 80s and tourism plunged. The conflict went on for 30 long years despite which tourism continued at around 400,000 visitors annually, mainly British.

Tourists were never targeted. After the conflict ended in 2009, the pent-up demand to explore this beautiful island meant numbers rocketed and tourism became the biggest employer, especially empowering the bottom of the pyramid – tuk-tuk drivers, homestays, chauffeurs and tour guides. 2018 was our best year ever with 2.3m arrivals.

Then during Easter 2019 came the terror attacks. We knew that it was a one-off, not the beginning of a trend, but the six months following were devastating for the industry with mass cancellation of bookings for the following summer and winter. However, bookings picked up when it was clear there was no further security threat and we had a decent winter season from December 2020 to mid-March when the pandemic hit.

Post the current crisis, we are looking at a new strategy, or reset if you like. We should focus on refining our product, strengthening the Sri Lanka brand with new and improved visitor experiences that respect and nurture our environment and benefit local communities. Sustainable tourism is of greater importance postCOVID; we need to address this as we have fallen short as an industry. Sustainability has always been at the forefront at Resplendent Ceylon, in keeping with the vision of Dilmah Tea, our parent company, that Business is a Matter of Human Service.

Fifteen percent of earnings before tax go to the MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. Humanity’s frailty has been exposed by this pandemic. There is a fresh appreciation of nature and the need to be more considerate of each other, considering what we have jointly experienced.

At Resplendent Ceylon and our three resorts, Tea Trails, Wild Coast Tented Lodgeand Cape Weligama, we used the lockdown period to attend to all those ‘important but not urgent projects’ which tend to get neglected in good times. During this period, we’ve revamped our processes, streamlined and digitized to a significant extent. In late April, we released our video message of Resilience, which received over 350,000 views globally.

The idea behind the video was to let people know that Sri Lankans have been through challenging situations before, and each time, we have emerged stronger. While as a country and as a global community, we will have to adapt, we felt that this would be an opportunity for us to redefine how we take care of our planet.

The message started off simply, it was recorded on a phone, sent via WhatsApp while being in lockdown and was released on social media platforms. It then evolved into a national message, with Sri Lankans from across the spectrum coming forward to share it. As the lockdown ended, we released ‘SafeStay’. This comprehensive health and safety guide consists of 56 standards covering all aspects of hotel operations, developed by our operations team.

Despite comprising low-density resorts in isolated locations, Resplendent Ceylon believes the guide is essential to ensure the protection of guests, staff, and respective communities. It was only after our staff had been thoroughly trained that we decided to open the doors of our resorts to residents on the 1st of June. Resident guests have been a pillar of strength in helping the industry to get back on its feet. Tourism is the most important industry in Sri Lanka employing more than one in ten, therefore it is important that residents continue to travel and support local brands around the island to support those whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Many locals who usually holiday overseas have been very pleasantly surprised by their first experience at a Resplendent Ceylon resort; this is a good opportunity to build a critical mass of loyal local fans.

We are hopeful we might see the first set of foreign visitors around October and a reasonable winter season starting in December. With many Sri Lankan hotels in isolated rural areas and boutique by nature, we believe that we are well-positioned to thrive in the post-pandemic era. The development of safe air travel protocols, accurate rapid tests, and a vaccine obviously will be key factors in the recovery process. Despite the setbacks, we will emerge stronger, as we always do.