Restarting tourism post Covid

With a lot of attention given to how the tourism and hospitality industry can bounce back from the critical hit it took with the pandemic, the role of tour operators and how they could adapt to post-Covid-19 travel can sometimes be overlooked.

To this end, the youth arm of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), Sri Lanka’s apex inbound tourism industry body, put together an eminent panel of leading voices from tour operator associations and diplomats across Europe.

The webinar looked at what tour operators could do to promote Sri Lanka, the expectations of guests and tour operators when the destination reopens, and what a realistic timeline of a restart in tourism in Sri Lanka would look like.

The panel consisted of Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK Saroja Sirisena, German Travel Association (GTA) Head of Politics and Outbound Travel Adams Volker, former Director of UK Association of Independent Tour Operators Sam Clark, GTA Destination Committee Member Lal Wijetunga, Dutch Association of Small-Scale Travel Organisations Member and Legal Advisor Carolien Halm, Association of Belgian Travel Organisers Committee Member Paul Ryckaseys, and SLAITO Youth President Maxime Wickramasinghe. The panel was moderated by former Chairman of Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB) Rohantha Athukorala. 

On reopening as a destination post Covid-19, the panel spoke about surveys conducted in their respective countries indicating that many travellers who would have previously chosen to travel abroad are opting to travel domestically or not at all for the near future. This indicates heavily that travellers will only be looking to long-haul later in 2021, most likely for the winter season.

The panel also indicated that Covid-19 and contracting it will not be a major concern as travellers will simply cancel or reschedule trips, should an outbreak occur in their chosen destination. Something that travellers would be keen to have defined, however, is flexibility with travel arrangements and booking as well as minimised risk of losing any payments they may make.

Sri Lanka needs to start preparing for travellers in the long term, looking at things like defining visa procedures and fees, required medical check-ins, and procedures to be followed, also outlining what happens if and when a traveller is diagnosed with Covid-19. A concern also raised was where travellers would be sent if they had Covid-19, as sending them to general hospitals is not realistic. Therefore, procedures and systems would need to be put in place to combat these issues, and it is not likely this will be successfully planned and executed by January 2021.

Another point raised by the panel was the role tour operators can play in general. Global situations and large-scale disasters like the 2004 tsunami, for instance, lead to a rise in demand for tour operators. This is because there is a level of uncertainty in a destination which makes travellers more comfortable having a point of contact with whom they can link and address concerns with and someone they can physically deal with if changes to plans need to be made.

Moreover, another aspect that makes travellers feel safer with tour operators is that in many cases, tour operators are often responsible for repatriating travellers they have handled.

These factors will likely lead to a rise in demand for tour operators, particularly for those travelling post Covid-19. The long-term applicability of this demand, however, is uncertain as when things stabilise, it is very likely travellers will begin handling their own travel again to cut costs.

In terms of things that could be done to assure travellers, the panel spoke about how a step was taken by the Turkish Hotels Association in working with French and German certification companies to have Turkish hotels certified in relation to Covid-19 health and safety. Moves like this could help build confidence in travellers thinking of visiting.

Another important aspect of inspiring confidence in travellers, as the panel noted, was clear and transparent communication on the ground in Sri Lanka across all levels – from the Government down to hotels and local tour operators – and then in turn to foreign tour operators. This is a great way to boost travellers’ confidence and the freedom of information means that foreign tour operators are better able to advise travellers and promote Sri Lanka as a destination.

The overall consensus of the panel was that Sri Lanka should look to welcoming tourists in the longer-term and do their best to make sure guests feel completely safe and secure investing in Sri Lanka as a destination and making the decision to travel here.