Travel advisors are encouraged by the recent easing of travel warnings to Sri Lanka, anticipating a rebound of interest in a country that up until last April’s terrorist attack was winning accolades and regarded as an up-and-coming destination.
The U.S. is among a dozen countries to have recently downgraded warnings about travel to Sri Lanka issued after the terrorist attacks on April 21, Easter Sunday, in which more than 250 people were killed.
The U.S. State Department last month toned down its advisory to Level 2 (Exercise Increased Caution), bringing it in line with security warnings from countries like Australia, Canada, the UK, and Sri Lanka’s largest source of visitors, India.
Previously Sri Lanka had a State Department Level 3 warning, effectively urging travelers to “reconsider” their trip.
The past three months have seen the Sri Lankan tourism market decimated, with government statistics showing 40,527 arrivals in May, down from almost 130,000 the same time last year.
However officials were encouraged by early signs of growth, even before the current wave of eased warnings. The Minister of Tourism, John Amaratunga, recently announced an LRK500 million (US$2.85 million) international promotional campaign to attract more visitors.
Reopens the Door
For agencies like Boston-based Audley Travel, the relaxation of the travel advisory reopens the door to a destination that topped many “hot lists” prior to the attacks.
“Many people are beginning to reconsider travel to the country,” said Audley Travel product manager Rebecca Sanders. “Of course, the decision is riddled with questions. In the end matters of safety are a personal choice.”
As was the case with many agencies, Sri Lanka was not a high-volume destination prior to the Easter massacre, with Audley selling 17 trips to Sri Lanka in 2019.
Similarly Sri Lanka has not been a popular destination at Flight Centre’s Liberty Travel leisure agencies.
“As it is a secondary destination for our customers, our booking volume has not changed in Sri Lanka following recent terror activity,” said Alysa McKenna, director of communications for Flight Centre Travel Group.
McKenna is optimistic about the recovery of Sri Lankan tourism.
“Having experienced declines and resurgences of other destinations over the years, we’ve always found that destinations rebound quickly following disasters and/or crises when there are no ongoing or residual effects of the incidents.”
The exceptions, she said, are markets where there are ongoing incidents of crime, terrorist activity, or catastrophic weather conditions.
Discounts and Upgrades
Audley Travel’s Sanders hopes there may be good travel deals from Sri Lankan operators.
Several popular hotels are currently offering discounts of 30 percent or more, while others are offering free upgrades to attract bookings. Among those offering incentives are The Sri Lanka Collection, a UK-based hotel representative with a portfolio of privately owned, highly individual Sri Lankan boutique hotels and safari camps.
Reassurance to Travelers
Any recovery, according to Flight Centre’s McKenna, depends on reassuring the traveling public. “Transparency is also important and providing the public with assurances that there is a resolution to an issue,” she added.
A recent statement from Minister Amaratunga noted significant progress in the campaign to reassure potential visitors. “Our security forces have been able to completely neutralize the terrorist threat. The healing process has also achieved much ground and things are fast returning to normal,” he said.
“I can assure tourists that we have taken all precautions to ensure their safety in all parts of the country,” he stressed.
Sri Lankan authorities are now working with foreign missions to encourage those with travel advisories in place to relax them.
Aditya Luthra, a regional security expert with global travel safety provider International SOS, told Skift that travel to Sri Lanka can continue with heightened precautions and comprehensive journey planning, which includes enhanced situational awareness, a robust communications plan, prearranged transportation, and confirmation of hotel bookings.
“Travelers are likely to experience a continued heightened security presence in coming weeks. This is particularly due to the potential for communal violence following increased tensions between religious communities due to the attacks. They should also expect intermittent disruption to internet and mobile telecommunication services during these periods, as the authorities impose restrictions as part of security measures,” he said.
Getting Back on Track
The Easter massacre came just as the country was starting to enjoy the benefits of its Lonely Planet accolade as “the best country in the world to visit in 2019.”
Sri Lanka’s citation in the Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel awards noted its improved transport links, new hotels, and a growing number of tourist activities.
Tourist visits to Sri Lanka peaked at 2.1 million in 2018, and local tourism authorities had hoped to double that by 2020. That figure now seems unattainable, but agencies like Audley Travel are keen to help get Sri Lanka back on the tourism radar.
“As we saw with Puerto Rico, media coverage can spread a message of strength in the face of catastrophic events. Instead of focusing on destruction and hardship, the world is shown the bravery and resilience of a destination,” said Sanders. “That’s what we want to help highlight in Sri Lanka.”
She is confident of some recovery. “So much of a country’s ability to rebound from tragedies of this scale comes from financial resources,” she said. “In developing nations, tourism often plays a big role. Our goal at Audley is to help educate travelers on where to spend their dollars so that as much money as possible is landing back in the pockets of locals.”