Joint effort to safeguard tourism in Sri Lanka

By Jithendri Gomes

It’s been two weeks since the bombings in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa. The country is certainly still weeping and dealing with the shock in the aftermath. A collapse in tourism following the attacks on churches and hotels would deal a severe blow to the island’s economy and financial markets. The tourist influx was only meant to increase during this year. Tourism was Sri Lanka’s third-largest and fastest-growing source of foreign currency last year, after private remittances and textile and garment exports, accounting for almost $ 4.4 billion or 4.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018.

The problem at hand

The veterans of the industry also met with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week to discuss the way forward.

The Prime Minister had also promised financial assistance for those who need it in the industry. He had specifically mentioned fast-tracked financial support for speedy revival and agreed in principle to allow the duty-free import of latest security equipment for hotels. It was reported that the tourism industry remained hopeful, with the Government extending their support in any area of need, especially security.

Sri Lanka Tourism Bureau Chairman Kishu Gomes was in Dubai when this article was being penned, attending the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) Conference along with 60 other hoteliers. As confirmed by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board, Gomes had been working to promote the industry and at the same time was speaking to many foreign media personnel. There was also a press conference arranged at ATM for the purpose of answering questions from journalists. He had also appeared for an exclusive interview with CNN.

Speaking to Reuters, Gomes noted: “Tourist arrivals in Colombo will fall by 50% over the next two months following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people. Tourist arrivals in areas outside Colombo are likely to fall by about 30% as a result of the attacks. Sri Lanka faces lost tourism revenues of about $ 750 million this year.”

SriLankan Airlines Chief Executive Vipula Gunatilleka told Reuters that the carrier had a 10% increase in cancellations last week and expects that number to rise.

“The Tourism Bureau targeted 2.5 million visitors in 2019. We will probably reach about two million,” Gomes told reporters. “We are looking at providing some concessions to the industry for them to be able to maintain their viability over the next few months. If the military can come out over the next few days and make a strong statement with respect to security, that’s when we will obviously offer a bit of confidence and try and work against that anticipation.”

Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy, speaking to foreign media, also highlighted that the immediate industry to be affected by this crisis would be tourism. He also emphasised that we are going into the off season from May till August and that there was a downfall of tourism influx expected anyway. This fact was confirmed by the hotels we spoke to as well.

The hotels speak

Cinnamon Grand, Colombo

We spoke to a few hotels based in and out of Colombo about their experiences and reaction to this current crisis. From those affected, we managed to speak to Cinnamon Grand, Colombo about what happened and their road back to recovery. A spokesperson from the institution spoke to us exclusively, and stated: “We are happy to announce that we opened our doors to the public on 30 April 2019. Almost all our restaurants are also now open to the public. This includes Chutneys, Noodles, Cheers Pub, Tea Lounge, and Coffee Stop.

“We must emphasise the amount of support and love we received from our regular guests. Our first customer at Coffee Stop was a foreigner who has been with us for the last 17 years. She kept inquiring from us when we will reopen for her to come and share her solidarity with us. We also received words of encouragement and love through our social media platforms, especially with inquiries about when we would reopen. So we are happy to announce that we are open for service!

“In fact, last week, we had a wedding in our hotel as well and everything was under control and it ran smoothly. There are in-house guests who are also enjoying our hospitality. We also have many foreign media crews staying with us. We are making sure we look after them well. In spirit, we have hospitality at our core and that is who we are. We will bounce back and rebuild.”

With regard to their safety measures, they confirmed that they have put scanning machines in place, so that every guest who walks in will have to do so through these scanning machines. “We have also put notices in place asking our guests to cooperate with us with the introduction of this security screening method we have adopted. We are trying to do our part to ensure everyone’s safety. Our team’s safety is also something we have at heart and we are giving it a lot of focus too.

“With the tragic event that happened on 21 April, we lost many people. So we want to ensure that proper safety measures are in place to deter a similar experience in the future. Our General Manager, senior management, and the team have come together in this matter and given priority to safety and security. We also have a crisis management team in place.

“We also have counsellors in place to help our staff recover from the aftermath and it is something we are currently focussing on intently. Trainings and counselling sessions have been organised for our staff as well. Last Sunday at the exact time the bombings took place, we had a memorial service at the exact place as well, remembering all those who lost their lives on that day. We mourned for their lives and this too helped us get closure and come to terms with what had happened.

“We want our customers to return and enjoy their stay with us. The support we received has been immense and we didn’t feel abandoned at all in this time of crisis.”

Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo

Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo spokesperson shared with us their experience and the measures they had taken due to these attacks.

“It is with great sadness that we can confirm that we are aware of a number of casualties among our guests and colleagues. This includes five of our colleagues who were fatally injured in the course of their duties. We will continue to work closely with local authorities and emergency services to provide our fullest assistance and support to all affected parties. Our hotel remains secured by the military and the Police. The hotel is currently closed, and we plan to resume operations on Monday, 10 June 2019.

“Our immediate priority continues to be the safety and well being of all affected. We have also proactively carried out the following measures since the attacks in Colombo:

• Our team has been assisting with guest and next of kin’s needs in various aspects such as providing accommodation, counselling services, transportation, and flight arrangements
• We also have staff stationed at the airport and at the hospitals to render assistance where needed
• A dedicated call helpline (+603 2025 4619) has been set up for affected guests and/or their loved ones
• We are working closely with relevant embassy officials to support their respective citizens

“Our hotel team remains ready to offer any other assistance to our guests and their families and to provide the necessary support to our colleagues and their next of kin during this very difficult time. As this is an active investigation, and out of respect to our guests and staff’s privacy, we are unable to provide further details at this stage.”

Beyond Colombo

ONYX Hospitality Group Area General Manager Russell Cool, commenting on the current situation, said they were deeply saddened by the recent tragic events and their thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected from everyone at ONYX Hospitality Group.

“We were fortunate that our hotels were not directly affected by the incidents and all team members and guests were safe and accounted for.”

Given any crisis situation, Cool explained that their first priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their guests, patrons, and team members. “We worked closely with the Police and military to ensure that the hotel and surrounding premises were secured and stringent security checks of all the rooms, its guests, and operating areas were carried out.”

Cool shared that it’s important for their team to remain calm and carry out daily tasks as usual which provided their guests with some reassurance. “We are extremely pleased that our hotel team worked closely together to handle the situation, confidently displaying their management capabilities during a crisis such as this.”

All ONYX Hospitality Group hotels still have heightened security measures in their operating procedures and Cool said that they are working closely with local authorities. “Also, we have invested in increasing our security resources and equipment, and conduct regular drills, role play, and preparedness exercises.”

According to Cool, Amari Galle, OZO Kandy, and OZO Colombo remain fully operational as they continue to extend warm Sri Lankan welcome and hospitality to all travellers. “However, we recommend that all visitors check with their respective governments for travel advisory updates.

“We are beginning the stage of recovery and rebuilding this beautiful country and have confidence in the strength of the Sri Lankan people to overcome this tragedy. I hope those who know and love Sri Lanka will return. I am an Australian living in Colombo with my wife and three children, all under 10, and I intend to stay!”

The perception of safety and the way forward

Jetwing Chairman Hiran Cooray

Jetwing Chairman Hiran Cooray, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, said: “For tourism all over the world, safety and stability are the number one criteria to attract tourists. The perception of safety in Sri Lanka is what we need to focus on right now.”

He explained that one of the main reasons tourists were attracted to Sri Lanka was because it was known to be safe. But unfortunately, we faced a thundering blow two weeks ago.

“The country must give the assurance and confidence and invite people in. It is very important for us, as a country to communicate very clearly what safety measures are being taken by the Government and the forces. It is certainly a national crisis so there is a need for these actions to be communicated on a daily basis or at least every other day right now.”

Thereafter, Cooray, shared what they were doing at their hotels. “We are taking high safety and security measures, especially to identify any odd or suspicious people entering our properties. We are training our staff to be more vigilant.

Earlier, we focused purely on hospitality but now it is important to train them to be careful and keep a look out. We must reduce our risk levels as much as possible.

“As with any incident of this nature, there was an element of panic as soon as it happened. Our guests had their loved ones asking them to come back, after watching what had happened on international media channels. Now, panic levels are much less and we will take precautions accordingly.”

When we asked Cooray, as a veteran in the industry, about whether we can relate to the experiences faced during the war, and if so, what we could draw from it, he said: “It was a different kind of threat. Currently, there aren’t any long, drawn out battles. Instead, we can learn better from the Paris attack in 2015, Bali bombings in October 2002, and other similar incidents. This is a new era with a new threat, so we must find new solutions for it.

“We have had a large outpouring of love and care from people at large with many tourists expressing their confidence in us. I believe that our tourism will bounce back from this fairly fast.”

This is further proved with many foreigners who were already in Sri Lanka visiting or have visited before sharing their testimonies with the world about their experiences. They vouched for the beauty of this country and the safety measures taken by the authorities, even though many countries warned their citizens not to travel to Sri Lanka, unless it is absolutely necessary. When citizens of their nations share testimonies, it speaks volumes. Their support and love for our country is something we must be grateful for.

It must also be highlighted that no sooner this terrifying incident took place, the SLTDA official website took quick measures to answer some of the questions that would be directed towards them due to the emergency. A few of them included:

Was the attack targeting tourists?
No, this is an unprecedented act of terrorism perpetrated against Sri Lanka with specific explosions at three churches, three hotels, one guest house, and a housing complex.

Are hotels in Sri Lanka closed?
No, all our hotels and resorts are open as usual – please contact your travel agent or the hotel directly if you have any questions or want to reconfirm or alter your travel plans.

What measures have been taken to ensure safety?
The tri-forces along with the Police have been deployed across the island and security has been ramped up at all affected areas.

Who will help me locate missing friends and family?
Sri Lanka Tourism is working with all hotels and all branches of Government to ensure that you have the help you need. Call 1912 or +94 2382209 for assistance

What if I lost my passport and/or luggage during the emergency evaluations?
Please contact 1912 or +94 2382209 for immediate assistance

Are the tourist attractions closed?
All tourist attractions and hotels are open and operational. Security forces are deployed all over the island and extra precautions are being taken for important tourist sites. A new safety briefing has also been issued to hotel operators.

What about major beaches and cultural tourist sites in Sri Lanka?
All the popular beaches in the South of Sri Lanka, the Cultural Triangle, Galle Heritage City, Trincomalee, Pasikudah, Arugam Bay, Jaffna in the North, and all wildlife parks are open for business and unaffected by the terror attacks.

Can travellers get to the airport during the curfew?
Yes, anyone can to the airport during curfew by presenting their airline ticket and passport at the police checkpoints. Travellers must have valid airline ticket and passport.

How early should I report to the airport?
For your comfort and safety, it is important to plan to arrive at the airport at least four hours ahead of your flight.

What do I do if I have already booked a tour to Sri Lanka?
We encourage you to continue with your travel plans to Sri Lanka. All facilities are fully operational and optimum security is in place to ensure for your safety. If you would like to make changes to your itinerary, please speak to your hotel representative and airline for the postponement of your travel dates. All local transport, establishments, and hotels are fully operational. If you want to make a cancellation, check your hotel and airlines’ altered cancellation policy in lieu of the current situation.

A negative impact on the industry is certainly unavoidable. But it is reassuring to know that all the authorities, especially the SLTDA along with the Government, are working towards cutting back on the loses, extending a helping hand to all parties affiliated with the industry, and going out of their way to ensure that sufficient safety measures are taken to protect both citizens and visitors.