By Renishka Fernando
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is once again facing a crisis due to economic, political and social issues that have attracted attention abroad.
Countries have issued advisories asking travelers to reconsider their trips.
Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have so far issued advisories, while Singapore and China have urged citizens to exercise caution in Sri Lanka. The Chinese Embassy warned earlier this month that the economic situation is “increasingly critical with a significant increase in uncertainties in society” and that Chinese people should pay attention to the “security situation”.
Various overseas notices highlighted violence, political and economic unrest, and shortages of basic items.
The US State Department revised its travel advisory on April 7 to Level 3, which read: “reconsider travel.”
All stakeholders in the tourism industry staged a peaceful protest outside the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) on April 5.
The protest was organized by travel companies calling for access to basic items – gas, fuel and electricity – the lifting of the state of emergency, the protection of the livelihoods of those involved in tourism and the new Tourism Law No. 38, to name a few. .
They were holding slogans that read: “Protect the Tourism and Hospitality Industry for US Dollar Revenues”, “Protect the Livelihoods of Two Million Sri Lankans”, “Appoint Competent People to Make Decisions economic”.
“We have had to deal with ongoing issues, from Easter attacks to Covid-19. and now, political and economic unrest,” said Darshana Cabraal, executive committee member of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO).
Meanwhile, the recent string of events across Sri Lanka, ranging from protests, state of emergency and social media bans, has led many tourists to cancel and rethink their decision to travel. go to Sri Lanka. Potential tourists have started to wonder if it is safe to travel to Sri Lanka amid multiple crises.
“The travel advisories were issued due to the declaration of a state of emergency,” Cabraal said. He explained that when an emergency is declared, insurance is expensive. This discourages travellers. He added that the unrest generated negative publicity. New bookings have dropped drastically, while there are cancellations.
“Travellers are thinking twice about traveling now,” Cabraal said.
Meanwhile, he noted that countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore have opened up to visitors since April 1. This gives tourists from Western countries more options and it remains a threat to the revival of tourism in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, long queues for petrol/diesel and cooking gas, as well as power outages and medicine shortages have also had a serious negative impact.
Homestays and bed and breakfasts are struggling because they don’t have generators. The shortage of fuel prevents responders from providing uninterrupted services.
Mr. Cabraal pointed out that tourists who have come to Sri Lanka through local operators and agents have been able to find accommodation where generators are available.
“Budget travelers visiting Sri Lanka are those most affected by the crisis.”
Despite the problems in the industry, some tourists shared their positive experiences in Sri Lanka. In a video recently released by Cinnamon Lifestyle, international travel guide, conservationist and wildlife photographer, Paul Goldstein called on travelers to visit Sri Lanka to help the economy grow.
In the video, Goldstein recalls his many visits to Sri Lanka saying that what brings him back is “a combination of remarkable wildlife, an unrivaled and captivating coastline, magnificent cuisine, a fascinating culture and a breathtaking interior”.
He further says that what underpins all these components are Sri Lankans who are hospitable, kind and resilient.
Tourism remains one of the main sources of foreign exchange, but economic and social problems keep tourists away. Tourism brought in US$4.38 billion in 2018, but that figure fell to US$3.60 billion in 2019 after the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels. This was followed by travel restrictions due to the coronavirus disease pandemic in 2020.
Tourism revenue fell to US$682.5 million in 2020 and US$506.9 million in 2021.
“They [SLTDA] are just counting the number of tourists, but to run our hotels and businesses, we need to have the basic needs,” Cabraal noted.
The industry is also struggling with the migration of experienced personnel.
“How can we serve tourists when we don’t have experienced staff?” he asked.
Due to better opportunities and job security in countries like UK, Australia, Dubai, Maldives and Qatar, trained employees are emigrating.
“The industry was just coming up,” said Mr. M Shanthikumar, chairman of the Sri Lanka Hotel Association. He said it was imperative to find lasting solutions to protect one of Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign exchange.
He wondered why tourists would come when businesses cannot meet even the most basic needs. “No matter how hospitable we are, no one wants to come to a country with 1 p.m. power cuts and fuel shortages.”
Stakeholders said the recovery will be difficult, but they will try to provide uninterrupted services as much as possible.
“Our industry is totally neglected,” Mr. Shanthikumar remarked. Unity must be preferred. THASL hotels have helped each other in the face of shortages.”
Another issue that has irritated tourism stakeholders is the rush to pass the new tourism law. “We don’t know why they are in such a rush to pass this law when the whole country is burning,” he said.
Moreover, discussions in the private sector on the law have not yet taken place.
According to Mr Shanthikumar, concerns were raised with the then Minister of Tourism, Prasanna Ranatunga, who assured them that the project would be handed over to the private sector. The project has not yet been shared.
“It is the government that wants the new tourism law passed. If the government tells us not to pass the new law, then we will not,” said Dhammika Wijesinghe, Director General of SLTDA. She also confirmed that there have been many cancellations due to the emergency and the social media ban.
“There is nothing we can do at the moment to meet these basic needs because they are not available,” Ms Wijesinghe said.
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