Re-imagining travel in a mid-pandemic world

By Naveed Rozais

World Tourism Day fell on 27 September. As a nation that is one of the world’s top travel destinations, the marking of such a day was bittersweet, looking at this past year and the how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on Sri Lanka’s tourism sector.

Despite a feasible vaccine nowhere in sight and the world being put on hold for basically the entirety of 2020, we as humans need to make a decision: Do we continue pressing pause or do we adapt and live with this new virus. This question is extremely powerful for the tourism sector, as it is an industry that simply cannot survive in the long term without foreign travel.

In this backdrop, The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with a few different hospitality companies operating at different levels of the tourism market to gain insights into potential ways that tourism can evolve in the near future, considering a world where we may need to deal with Covid-19 and the risk of contracting it as a daily part of our lives.

Going local

Speaking on World Tourism Day, Fox Resorts CEO Chris Quyn emphasised the importance of going local, urging Sri Lankans to use the closing of international borders as a chance to “visit a city you’ve never had the chance to explore and revisit places that you couldn’t really get the most out of before” within the country.

Focusing on developing the domestic market and attracting the local traveller is something the travel sector has focused on extensively in recent months, but the local market alone cannot sustain this multibillion-dollar industry.

For Fox Resorts, a small collection of boutique hotels and partner properties around Sri Lanka, the local market has always played an important role in their operations. “Fox Resorts has always paid a lot of attention to local bookings as around 40% of our bookings have always been from Sri Lankans. We have always honoured local rates, even during peak tourist seasons.”

For companies like Fox Resorts which cater to the luxury market, going local can be a feasible option until such time as borders open and foreign travel resumes, but for accommodation providers who work with mid-level and budget travellers, going local is not always sustainable.

Popular backpacker spot Tuk Tuk Hostels has ceased operations until further notice, given the situation of the pandemic and the closing of international borders. As a city hostel geared towards backpackers and budget travellers, catering to the local market is not easy to do, particularly because of local attitudes to hostels as well issues with health and safety that come from the shared space model of hostels.

For exclusive villas that focus on small groups of travellers, the local market is something that indeed can be catered to, particularly in a time where local travel is the only option, and exclusive use of a property by one group of travelling is an effective way of avoiding infection.

Kadju House, a beach villa in Tangalle, has seen a spike in occupancy in recent months. The team at Kadju House attributes this to guests looking for an isolated space designed in such a way that minimise interactions between staff and guests and follow safety measures easily. 

Maintaining safety

International borders have been shut since March on the grounds of maintaining national health and safety. There are different schools on thought on the effectiveness of this move. Some applaud the move as a way of maintaining the greater good, while others raise concerns over this causing more harm than good in the long run, particularly if Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere for a few years. With no definite date set to reopen borders for international travel (some say December, some say April), tourism, in particular, is left disadvantaged because of its dependence on foreign travellers and income.

But what about safety once foreign travel recommences? How do hotels, villas, and hostels need to adapt? Quyn of Fox Resorts commented on long term health and safety in the case of Fox Resorts and resorts around the island in general.

“Most Sri Lankan resorts are generally well geared for social distancing as they are built in a tropical style of architecture, where large open spaces and natural ventilation are key design aspects at construction. The mainstream hotels and city hotels, though, built with narrow corridors and tighter spaces, will have to reduce the numbers they can take in and also ensure that ample space between tables are maintained in the restaurants. However, I feel this will affect city hotels more than the resorts.

“All hoteliers have received clear guidelines from a host of authorities that publish scores of pages of information on what has to be done to minimise the spread of the virus and best protect guests and staff. The fundamental success factor though is to never relax your standards, but instead continue to keep pace with the ever-evolving guidance from these agencies. No matter how friendly the guest or staff member may be, their mask must stay on; no matter how busy you are as an employee, you must wash your hands. As hoteliers, we need to maintain these measures in the long run without compromise to safeguard not only our guests, but also the members of our team.”

Imagining the future

Inevitably, borders will reopen and travel will resume, with or without Covid-19. But what will the long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the travel sector as well as on Sri Lanka as a destination and brand?

The team at Tuk Tuk Hostels sees a difficult road ahead, with its Co-founder Hashan Sirisena sharing from a personal point of view that budget tourists would be a lot less likely to travel again until about end-2021. This is in part due to airport and travel restrictions complicating travel and adding risk and expense, as well as procedures like quarantines adding valuable time and added expense to their travel, and not to mention the effects of Covid-19 on the global economy that will also affect the disposable income of budget travellers worldwide.

Quyn’s vision of future travel is very hopeful. “I envision that Sri Lanka will be an even more highly sought-after travel destination post Covid, as travellers will be more conscientious about safety. With our incredibly low number of infections, Sri Lanka is even more attractive – our Government’s handling of the crisis has been extraordinary. There will, of course, be greater demand for our uncrowded beaches and open wildlife parks; destinations with less pollution and lower emissions; and generally more ecologically friendly travel destinations. Sri Lanka scores top marks in all of these areas, and tourists are sure to take note,” he shared.

Sri Lanka as a destination inspiring confidence was a sentiment shared by the Kadju House team who felt that travellers will be more likely to visit Sri Lanka because of its effective management of the pandemic. The team felt that this effective management would be likely to attract richer global tourists who are looking for safe and exclusive destinations to travel to.

Sri Lanka’s biggest strength is its diversity as a destination that offers travellers of all persuasions a unique and captivating experience. Covid-19 has changed the face of many industries, and tourism will definitely be one of them. Sri Lanka is nothing but resilient, and this too is something for us to overcome.