Thousands of tourists cut short visits to Sri Lanka, new bookings fall

ECONOMYNEXT – Thousands of tourists visiting Sri Lanka are cutting short their holiday plans and going back home, while forward bookings are falling rapidly, after blasts went off across the island including hotels, officials said.

"I don’t have an exact number, but it can be thousands trying to cut short their holidays and leave Sri Lanka early," Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority Chairman Kishu Gomes said.

"We have seen some tourists, who even without tickets have gone to the airport to buy tickets over the counter, but that’s understandable when something like this happens," he said.

A SriLankan Airlines official, under the condition of anonymity said that the airline is witnessing higher demand to change travel dates, but so far, there are available seats in outgoing flights.

There are currently no plans to schedule additional flights, but the airline is monitoring to see if the demand will reach such a level, the official said.

SriLankan, Emirates and Qatar Airways are the largest carriers operating to and from Sri Lanka.

Bookings Cancelled

Meanwhile, tourists are cancelling their plans to Sri Lanka for the coming months.

A London-Colombo international flight had 22 no-shows on Monday, an airline official said, while cancellations were seen in other flights on Sunday and Monday, adding that thousands of air ticket bookings for the next two months are being cancelled.

Major hotels such as the Galle Face Hotel, Ramada and Taj Samudra were seen erecting barricades and using hand scanners for tourists entering at the gates in Colombo.





Some were only allowing clients with previous bookings to enter their premises.

Sanath Ukwatte, the President of the largest leisure industry lobby group, The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), and the Chairman of the Mount Lavinia Hotel Group, said hotels are setting up baggage scanners, and security will be tight for years to come.

He said large numbers of forward bookings have so far been cancelled at his hotel.

"Around 20 percent of bookings have so far been affected and it can only go up, not down," he said.

Most of the cancellations are through online booking sites and by corporate clients, Ukwatte said.

He said it is not clear how many bookings are cancelled among THASL members, as some hoteliers could not be reached.

Galle Face Hotel Group Vice President  Chandra Mohotti said that "there will be huge cancellations".

A First

The Easter Sunday bombings were the first time that tourists were specifically targeted in a terror attack in Sri Lanka.

The radical group National Thowfeeth Jama’th set off eight bombs including suicide attacks, of which, three were at major hotels, leaving 39 foreigners dead and 28 injured.

Even during a 30-year civil war, tourists were not a target, Gomes said.

Tourists were left alone even during the communal violence in Aluthgama in 2014, and in Digana in 2018.

During a political crisis from October to December 2018, when large but peaceful protests were held, Sri Lanka’s arrivals growth fell to 3.3 percent in December and 2.2 percent in January, traditionally the two best-performing peak months.

Gomes opined the hit from the Easter bombings will be worse compared to the outcome of the political crisis.

Revenue Earner

Tourism contributes around five percent of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product (GDP), and is the third largest foreign exchange earner for the country. Tourism brought it 4.2 billion US dollars to Sri Lanka last year.

Tourists stayed an average 11 days in Sri Lanka and spent around 174 US dollar daily in 2018, generating 4.4 billion US dollars in earnings, up 11.6 percent from a year earlier.

Gomes termed the bombings as an attack intended to paralyze the country’s economy.

Sri Lanka is currently amid a peak in foreign debt repayment, with GDP growth of around 3-4 percent amid policy and political uncertainty.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had said that in addition to a hit to tourism, investors are likely to pull funds out of Sri Lanka.

The country welcomed 2.3 million tourists in 2018, growing 10.3 percent, helped by a low base year in 2017 owing to an airport closure from January to April.

The England cricket team’s tour of Sri Lanka had also helped arrivals grow in November 2018.

Arrivals have witnessed diminishing growth since 2010 (the year after the end of a 25-year civil war which saw a so-called peace dividend) due to a lack of proper promotions, falling to a growth of 3.2 percent in 2017.

New promotional efforts were only starting to get underway in 2019, after Sri Lanka was named the world’s top country to visit by travel publisher Lonely Planet and received greater attention from travel bloggers and publications.

The bombs went off at that start of the off-peak season, during which Sri Lanka has been traditionally struggling to fill hotels and has been offering heavily discounted prices, in a promotional campaign headed by the government.

The off-peak season runs till October or even November, except for July and August, when local and foreign school holidays attract bookings.

Ukwatte said that the tourism industry would suffer for a few months.

"The negative sentiment will last for around three months," he said.

"Other countries, not only us; Indonesia, Thailand, India and Turkey, they all had their share of extremists attacks on tourist hotels, and for them, it bounced back after a while."

Recovery Hopes

Mohotti meanwhile was more optimistic.

He said that bookings may rebound after a month, as long as there are no repeat attacks.

Hiran Cooray head of Sri Lanka’s Jetwing Hotels group said he was hoping Sri Lanka would rebound quickly.

"I think authorities seem have information on this and they will wrap this up quickly," Cooray said.

"As much authorities wiped out terrorism this they will clear this group quickly. This is a small country and they will identify this network. I think the tourism industry will come out of this."

Ukwatte said the recovery in sentiment will depend on how decisively the government acts.

"It depends on how fast the government comes up with a statement and brings these perpetrators to book," he said.

"They have to maintain law and order in the country, that is paramount, and the whole country and international community is waiting for that."

Sri Lanka will bring back some emergency laws to deal with the bombers, the President’s office said.

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told reporters that intelligence units had known of the attacks, but higher ups had not taken enough action.

He said that among the arrested and the suicide bombers are those who had been arrested earlier, but released.

Gomes said that the Tourism Ministry will work with the Defence Ministry to start a confidence building exercise to bring more tourists back to Sri Lanka in the future. (Colombo/Apr22/2019-SB)


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