Salvaging tourism | Rebuilding the nation

By Sarah Hannan

With the Covid-19 pandemic still posing the threat of a second wave in the country, the Government’s decision to resume socioeconomic activities is still being criticised.

Keeping the country’s activities restricted for too long would cause it to descend into a more chaotic situation, with the state and private sectors running out of money to keep the paycheques going out.

Although Sri Lanka’s tourism industry only contributes about 12.5% of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product), many view it as the quickest method to kickstart the economy. Although the tourism industry of Sri Lanka is permitted to commence operations from August under strict health and safety conditions, this move is not viewed favourably by industry experts.

Just last week, seven families in Jaffna were instructed to self-quarantine after a saree merchant from India who had visited the town to sell the goods, interacted with these seven families. Later, upon his return to India, it was learnt that he had contracted Covid-19.

How such situations will be managed once Sri Lanka opens for tourists in August, is a question we need to ask.

Moreover, will the general public be ready to welcome tourists with the same hospitality and warmth as before, given that some countries in Europe and the Americas are yet to bring the pandemic under control?

In an attempt to salvage the tourism industry which is currently on a downward spiral, Minister of Tourism and Aviation Prasanna Ranatunga proposed that Cabinet approve a tourism relief package entailing a loan of Rs. 15.8 billion to pay salaries to a total of 131,497 persons employed in Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA)-registered businesses and 9,216 tour guides and drivers.

The loan will cover a payoff of Rs. 20,000 per staff member per month for a period of six months in hotels, tour management companies, and tour agencies, while staff members employed at eateries that cater to tourists, wellness centres, and spas are to receive a payoff of Rs. 15,000 per month for a period of six months.

Tour guides and drivers registered under the SLTDA will be granted a one-time allowance of Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 15,000, respectively.

These loans would be made available through government banks at an interest rate of 4%. Industry players will get a grace period of two years for repayment and would be required to pay back the loan amount within five years.

While the above loans will only cover SLTDA-registered businesses, it should be noted that several businesses that aren’t registered with the SLTDS provide services to keep tourists entertained during their stay in Sri Lanka; these businesses provide direct and indirect employment to people living in such areas.

The Sunday Morning spoke to some SLTDA-registered service providers as well as those from other subsectors which contribute towards keeping the country’s tourism industry running, about whether these concessions and loans would be of any help to them in rebuilding their businesses and keeping their staff in employment.

Adventure sports sector greatly affected

White Water’s Edge Proprietor Ravi Jayarathna

Our sector was greatly affected by the constitutional crisis of 26 October 2018 and then the Easter Sunday attacks of 21 April 2019; and just when we thought we were off to a good start to rebuilding our businesses this year, we were hit by a pandemic.

Kitulgala thrives on direct and indirect employment opportunities created by the adventure sports business, and is home to about 40 such establishments that offer rafting and adventure water sports-related activities. The majority of our income comes from foreign travellers who visit the area to engage in water sports.

Out of all the establishments in the area, I am the only person registered with the SLTDA; the rest of the businesses are all small enterprises which have been built on the owners’ personal investments.

When the travel and tourism sector opens up in August, we will still have to struggle to source financial support in order to repair our dilapidated boats and gear.

Our sector has been completely neglected; since Kitulgala does not have a people’s representative elected to Parliament or anyone serving in the Cabinet of Ministers of the incumbent Government, the people of this area did not even receive the Rs. 5,000 that was distributed to low-income families as relief.

Even after travel and tourism commences in August, we will not be able to start our operations as we cannot expect foreigners to travel to Sri Lanka this soon. Even if we are to make do with local tour groups, we do not see how our sector will be able to handle the tours while sticking to the health guidelines.

Moreover, we can earn a considerable income from local tour groups only when the corporate sector organises outbound training programmes, but I doubt that companies will be able to make allowances in their budgets for such activities due to the current economic conditions they are facing.

I have been told that some of the other water sports businesses in the area are now offering rafting and water sports activities at very low prices; when that happens, we will not be able to sustain our businesses or retain our employees.

The SLTDA should look at setting pricing standards for services that are on offer by the subsectors, as each business now charges whatever amount they please, and some tour guides/drivers too are misusing this by selling our services at a higher rate to travellers.

At present, about 1,000 people in Kitulgala have lost their source of income.

Even if tourism-related activities are to resume, with the mini hydro power plant projects coming up in the area, we will yet again face a crisis when the water runs dry and our businesses face closure.

We hope that the authorities will closely assess the impact of such projects in areas that are tourist hotspots and support us in retaining the businesses which generate income for and improve the livelihoods of Kitulgala residents.

Thousands have lost jobs

Yala Safari jeep driver Lahiru Sanjeewa

There are about 1,000 safari jeeps that operate in the Yala National Park and the businesses that have been built around the national park too have lost their income as a result of the travel restrictions. Although the parks would reopen on Monday (tomorrow), we can only expect local tour groups over the weekend, which will leave us with no income during the week, as there are no foreign tour groups in the country.

With economic activities shutting down for nearly three months, our industry has become the worst affected; as international travel will not resume immediately, we would have to bear this for a good six to 10 months in total.

During the lockdown, all the campsites had to layoff temporary employees as they could not afford to pay their daily wages due to the lack of income. These people will never get their jobs back. Even when the tourism sector reopens, we will have to attend to repairing our vehicles and making sure these are in a suitable condition to transport people.

With the vehicles remaining stationary for over three months, the batteries have died, engine parts have eroded, and the tyres too will have to be replaced.

The concessions and loans that the Government has promised for the tourism industry will not reach us, as we have not been included in the mix.

Rebuilding our sector will take at least another year and we cannot expect local tourism to have much of an impact in improving our cash flow at this moment. Leisure travel will be the last thing on their minds as many in the local workforce too are facing pay cuts and job losses.

The campsites too are facing issues as many who have taken huge loans to invest in their businesses have ended up with no income. These people are unable to pay their loan instalments, let alone restart their businesses when the country opens its doors for tourist arrivals.

Tours burdened with obstacles

Tourism Organisation of Professionals President Manoj Maddage

By the time we commence operations, the industry would have been closed for four-and-a-half months.

The proposed payoffs suggested in the cabinet paper will not be sufficient for most of the professionals and the one-time allowance that is granted to the tour guides and drivers seems to be an unfair amount.

We requested the President and the SLTDA to offer us a soft loan of up to Rs. 1 million, so that when we have to restart our operations, the drivers would be able to carry out the necessary repair work on their vehicles in preparation to transport tourists safely when they arrive in Sri Lanka; that amount will also cover our vehicle lease payments to an extent.

The tour guide lecturers mainly handle tour groups from Germany and the US, and given the present climate, we are doubtful that tourists from those countries would be travelling this soon. Most countries still have heavy travel restrictions in place and are discouraging group travel.

While we do understand that the conditions for travel stipulated by our tourism authorities are required to ensure the health and safety of the traveller and are taken as preventive measures, we feel these need to be revised, as we see that some conditions are not favourable to the traveller.

For instance, when tourists arrive in the country, they have to spend one day either in Negombo or Colombo until they get their PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results. Currently, this process takes up to 24 hours. So from the required minimum five-night stay in the country, one night will be spent in Negombo or Colombo, which will limit tourists’ travel itinerary to four nights/five days.

They are then required to take another PCR test on the fourth/fifth day of being in the country, which needs to be arranged by the accommodation provider, for which the tourists would probably have to pay. If in the country for more than 10 days, they will have to undergo a third PCR test, possibly on the eighth day after arrival; if they test positive for Covid-19, they will be placed under quarantine, which would span 14-21 days.

Even if we start receiving tour groups in September, the health guidelines that are in place and the stigma surrounding tourists from certain countries will pose a challenge for us as well as the travellers in accessing wayside services.

Then, we will also have another issue. Once we finish the tour, we will have to self-quarantine at home and would have to possibly wait for at least three weeks to receive the next tour group; we too would have to undergo PCR testing, although no clear instructions have been given in this regard.

Operation guidelines issued by SLTDA indicate that after we finish the tour, we should do the following:

  • Leave belongings outside, before entering the residence after a tour; any items that need to be taken inside the house immediately should be disinfected with alcohol-based sanitiser or exposed to heat
  • Enter the house only after taking a bath with water and soap
  • If feeling sick or weak after the tour (with or without high temperature/respiratory symptoms), seek immediate medical attention or call 1390/1999; if considered by medical experts as a Covid-19-suspected case, report immediately to the local MoH (Ministry of Health) office and also inform the SLTDA by calling 1912

Experiential tourism the way forward

Fun Holidays (Pvt.) Ltd. Managing Director Nalinda Perera

Currently, most of the service-oriented industries around the world have come to a halt due to restrictions on mobility. Out of the lot, tourism is one of the most affected sectors since strict health measures have heavily impacted international travel.

The tourism industry in Sri Lanka had to face two blows within a period of 12 months; first, the 21 April Easter attacks and now, the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry was gradually recovering from the negative impact after the former, and we were all set for a high volume of tourist arrivals during the last four months of the 2019/20 winter season, which is from January 2020 to April 2020.

However, with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in late December 2019, arrivals started to reduce slowly. The Chinese Spring Festival holiday period from late January to mid-February is considered one of the busiest periods each year, as we see a large number of Chinese arrivals. The breakout of the virus in China during this very period severely affected the industry in Sri Lanka as Chinese operators and local travel agents started cancelling bookings. This resulted in a nearly 80% drop in Chinese arrivals during this period.

Subsequently, other key markets started cancelling bookings too, and after the Government imposed curfew from 20 March, the entire industry came to a standstill.

This has brought most of the independent and some small and medium-sized travel agents to their knees; as they were already suffering from the aftermath of the 21 April attacks, some businesses had no choice but to close down.

Considering the current world situation, it’s not realistic to expect any business by August. Nobody wants to go on a holiday where you’re required to go on 14 days of quarantine should you be diagnosed with symptoms mid-tour.

The MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) sector will not operate either as most of the corporates around the world have been badly affected; this included the regional MICE sector (80% India) as well, which will severely affect hotels in Colombo.

We don’t predict any activity over the next six to eight months at least, irrespective of whether we are considering the holidaymaker or business traveller.

Until a vaccine is found for Covid-19, the industry will have to look at its business from a whole different perspective. Mass tourism will no longer attract anyone or rather no one will seek it due to health concerns that arise as a result of mass gatherings at tourist attractions and hotels.

The way around this would be alternative tourism where we promote the destination to niche markets and also promote more experiential tourism. Health, wellness, Ayurveda, and spiritual tourism will be the way forward.

To be frank, there are many other concerns before we open the country for tourism; the truth is, we are not 100% ready to open.