Sri Lanka tourism is readying for an early revival post COVID-19, as the country starts opening up gradually from today.
A major step was the Cabinet last week approving the critical five-year global promotion initiative.
“We are now finalising the Terms of Reference and appointment of the Procurement, Project and Technical Evaluation Committees; and will start the process, to be in readiness when the time is right,” Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando told the Daily FT.
She said a traveller-focused, evidence-based promotion strategy will be developed. “The approach focuses on consumer types and will allow for a research supported global promotional campaign for Sri Lanka,” she added.
With shutting down of borders and widespread social distancing, tourism was the worst affected sector following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) which has killed over 150,000 and infecting over two million globally.
Fernando said Sri Lanka Tourism is also currently working with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in a three-stage strategy of situation assessment, impact assessment and road mapping, to “help get tourism industry back on its feet”.
According to her, there are 11,071 registered entities and individuals in the industry. Additionally, there are 2,669 accommodation facilities with 39,253 rooms. “The input and collaboration of all tourism organisations is critical in the current climate, and would be of great benefit in charting the future,” Fernando added.
She said despite the uncertainty of the current situation, it was imperative to address day-to-day matters, whilst maintaining the foresight to plan ahead.
“I look to all associations to provide us with their formal proposals to help Sri Lanka Tourism to complete an inclusive long-term strategy,” she said, adding that the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance industry grouping has already submitted a proposal.
The industry also comprises of 34 associations including regional associations. In addition to the accommodation sector, there are associations of Travel Agents (DMC’s), Tour Guides and Drivers, inputs from whom are also essential going forward. “Tourism in Sri Lanka is an industry built on diversity and inclusivity,” Fernando pointed out.
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson also said COVID-19 provides an opportunity for Sri Lanka tourism to re-profile itself when the time is right.
“We can realign our focus towards higher yielding tourists and a unique Sri Lanka experience; while ensuring the safety of travellers, our employees and citizens,” she added.
According to her, the Sri Lanka Tourism’s post COVID-19 approach takes is in two stages – the Stage 1 (December Season 2020) and Stage 2 (Post-December 2020).
She said Stage 1 focuses on the immediate recovery of the industry, which involves changes to the visa process to include mandatory testing, adjustments to immigration process, airport entry, hotel transfer and certification of hotels to ensure health and safety of tourists, employees and the local community.
She pointed out that designated quarantine hotels need to be established with staff safety being paramount. “With the advice from the Ministry of Health, a detailed guideline will be released, and establishments will be audited to ensure compliance,” Fernando asserted.
She said rigorous health and safety activities incur costs and as such, it is recommended that a minimum pricing structure be established for accommodation, avoiding undercutting and the resulting race to the bottom.
“In the spirit of global solidarity, we would recommend an optional rapid test on departure at Sri Lanka Tourism cost, with results to be instantly messaged. This would provide assurance to tourists as they continue their travels elsewhere,” Fernando said.
“When the airport is fully operational, it would be an opportunity to increase flights and connectivity to Sri Lanka as an emerging transit hub in South Asia. This would be a learning from Singapore and Dubai’s example in building their tourism industry,” she added.
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson also stressed that the Government and the Central Bank have extended their fullest support to fast track industry recovery. “We look to the banks and financial institutions to support us and stand by our industry. We are personally contacting banks to assist our industry. We are currently working on how to support the industry for payment of salaries for the lower brackets and individuals with no safety net, through engagement with international funding agencies,” Fernando said.
She said COVID-19 was a severe blow to the industry which was still recovering after the Easter Sunday attacks last April.
She said as the pandemic unfolded, the first priority was the safety of tourists in Sri Lanka. On 12 March when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, there were 76,224 foreign travellers in Sri Lanka. A 24/7 call centre was setup to assist tourists.
With transportation issues in times of curfew, outbound flight tickets were allowed to be used as curfew passes to reach the airport. Another issue faced by foreign travellers was accommodation, with many hotels closing.
Alternative accommodation was found in other hotels and hostels. Sri Lanka Tourism liaised with the Foreign Ministry, embassies, airport authorities and airlines to facilitate safe departure. The Tourist and Expatriate Support Centre website provides live updates, essential information and assistance. According to Fernando at present there are 12,329 tourists in Sri Lanka.
She emphasised the resilience and solidarity within the industry and all stakeholders. “We are grateful for the people and businesses; whether it be in accommodation, restaurants, travel agents, tour guides, drivers in the industry and all the connected sectors who have invested in and supported Sri Lanka Tourism. We will focus on the overarching goal of building resilience in the tourism industry,” she added.
Fernando also said the Government’s preparedness for this pandemic is commendable and success in mitigating the impact gives Sri Lanka a chance to share the country’s deep-rooted history of wellness with the world.
“As a nation, we have much to offer in terms of our tranquil tourist experiences, hela vedakhama, indigenous Ayurveda, heritage spices, herbs and traditions. Our nation prides itself in its hospitality and focus on wellbeing.
“In a post-pandemic world, there will be a greater appreciation of all our nation has to offer. We will soon once again be able to share the beauty of our country with foreign travellers across the globe and welcome them with an ayubowan – wishing ‘long life’ to all,” said Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson.