Learning from the past

By Skandha Gunasekara

Undoubtedly, the Easter Sunday terror attacks were the worst incidents to impact Sri Lanka’s tourism industry recently. It has resulted in the industry almost coming to a complete standstill, but it also goes without saying that the country once suffered a similar blow to the tourism sector.

The 24 July 2001 terror attack at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) carried out by the LTTE dealt with similar repercussions to tourism, with the closure of the country’s only international airport at the time bringing the island nation to isolation from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the industry was able to bounce back faster than expected.

The 2001 attack on BIA saw 14 members of the LTTE infiltrate the BIA and carry out an assault on both Sri Lanka Air Force aircrafts as well as aircrafts from the fleet of the national carrier SriLankan Airlines. The country’s economy was severely hit with the closure of the airport, and the tourism sector was brought to a grinding halt.

However, effective steps taken by Sri Lanka Tourism and the Ministry of Tourism saw the revival of the sector.

Reminiscing a familiar event

Then Minister of Tourism and current MP Gamini Lokuge, speaking to The Sunday Morning, said that several quick measures were taken in response to the impact on tourism.

He said the first step was to make sure security was ensured. Thereafter, measures were taken to reassure the international community.

“We invited all international tourist operators to Sri Lanka and showed them that there was no danger. We took on round trips at the Government’s expense,” MP Lokuge said, adding that Srilankan Airlines facilitated free air tickets for this purpose as well.

He said the state officials met with ambassadors and members of the diplomatic community and requested the issuance of travel advisories against Sri Lanka be retracted or amended.

“We first built confidence in Sri Lankan tourism and the safety of tourists,” he said. In addition, the Government also financially assisted the industry, particularly the private sector.

“There was a terrorism coverage fund through which we gave loans. We gave loans of Rs. 50 million to hotels in the North and East and Rs. 500 million to hotels in Colombo such as Hilton Colombo and Hotel Galadari,” Lokuge said.

In addition, loans with interest rates as low as 2% were also facilitated.

Galadari Hotel General Manager and industry veteran Sampath Siriwardana was also the General Manager at Hilton Colombo in 2001.

Siriwardana told The Sunday Morning that hotels along with Sri Lanka Tourism and SriLankan Airlines carried out an aggressive campaign to attract tourists back to the country.

“Special packages and discounts were given by hotels for foreigners and locals alike,” Siriwardana said. However, he pointed out that unlike the Easter Sunday attack, the 2001 attack was not targeting foreigners or tourists.

“The LTTE was not targeting tourists, unlike the recent attack. Therefore, it was much easier to revive the tourism industry,” Siriwardana noted. He said it took around two months for tourism to recover by 50% and about six months to fully recover.

Making a prediction on the current situation, Siriwardana said he expected the industry to take at least till September for tourist arrivals to come back to 50% of what it was before the attack, adding: “For the industry to recover 100%, I say it would take at least till December or even January (next year). Expatriates coming to Sri Lanka in December could help this.”

Sri Lanka Tourism Authority (SLTA) Director of Marketing Madhubani Perera, who was in the Sri Lanka Tourist Board in 2001, recollecting the efforts taken at that time to revive the tourism industry, said the Government proactively lobbied with the diplomatic community.

“We brought down foreign journalists to show that the country was safe, so that they could go back and give their respective countries that message. We also lobbied with the embassies and the diplomatic community at large with regard to travel advisories issued on Sri Lanka,” she said.

She went on to say that special packages were also arranged and that Sri Lanka Tourism targeted the Indian market specifically.
“We gave buy-one-get-one-free packages, which included air fare. We focused heavily on the Indian market and for the first time gave visa on arrival for Indian citizens,” Perera said.

Efforts to address the current crisis

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairman Kishu Gomes said they were executing their plans effectively, noting that the public relations campaign with J. Walter Thompson (JWT) was underway and proceeding well.

He told The Sunday Morning that the campaign would not be limited to the usually targeted markets, but would have a much wider scope to ensure a strong message was sent to the international community.

“We will be running the campaign to revive the affected tourism brand, not limiting to the targeted markets, but going beyond that. The perception of our country has to be corrected and a positive perception has to be built across the entire world,” Gomes said.

He said that it was vital that there be no room for the world to jump to conclusions on the status of Sri Lanka without proper knowledge and understanding.

“While we have specific focus on the targeted tourism market, it is important that we don’t leave room for the rest of the world to contemplate and come into conclusions based on their level of understanding,” he noted.

He said the authority was connecting with diplomatic missions – both locally and internationally – to lobby for travel advisories to be lifted. “We are also taking part in various global travel events and expositions,” Gomes said.

Furthermore, he said the Chief of Defence Staff had held a presentation with the defence attaches of foreign missions to enlighten them on the current security situation of the country.

“We must strengthen our national security. There must be no room for the international community to doubt our nation’s security and the safety of tourists,” he observed.

He said he was optimistic about the recovery of the tourism sector and that rates of cancellations have dropped.

“We are seeing about 1,700 to 1,800 tourist arrivals on a daily basis. We were expecting 4,300 prior to the attack. Hotels are reporting renewed bookings and we expect the industry to bounce back within the year,” he concluded, reiterating that it largely depended on the security status of the country.