Sri Lanka enjoys a Revival

by Steve Hartridge

Bookings to Sri Lanka are returning faster than expected on a wave of goodwill towards the country, those attending a special ‘Sri Lanka Revival’ evening’ this week were told.

After the Easter Sunday bombings, tourist arrivals slumped 70% in May and 57% in June compared with a year earlier, but the green shoots of a recovery - evidenced by numbers increasing from 37,802 in May to 63,072 in June - are already being seen, according to the Chairman of one of the country’s leading hotel groups.

“Our bookings immediately took a big hit, and we lost around 500,000 room nights, but we were determined to keep all 4,000 of our staff. We said to them stay with us and we will stay with you… and, as a team, we will all get back to normal as quickly as we can,” said Hiran Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing.

Speaking to UK operators, the media and other Sri Lanka hoteliers at the Royal Overseas club in London, he added: “I am delighted to say that since the Foreign and Commonwealth Office lifted its travel advisory to Sri Lanka in early June we have seen 10,000 new bookings for August alone.”

Jetwing, which has 23 hotels in Sri Lanka - including six in Negombo, one of the cities targeted by the bombers - and several more villa properties, lost two staff members in the attacks.

“We are so grateful for the support and warmth we have received from UK tour operators, agents, the media and others…it has been simply overwhelming,” Cooray said.

Ngombo and destinations across Sri Lanka are putting out the red carpet for returning visitors. Added Cooray: “The situation is back to normal and the tourists I have spoken to who have visited after the attacks have all been very happy with the warmth of their welcome and tell me they felt totally safe.”

The renovated Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle is scheduled for an August 1 reopening and a brand-new Jetwing hotel in Kandy remains on track to be welcoming guests by the end of the year, reassured Cooray.

However, Sam Clark, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Experience Travel Group, struck a cautionary note. He said the operator’s year-on-year bookings were about 50% down and admitted there will be “plenty of hard work to do to catch up”.

Most tour operators have offers, incentives and add-ons in place at least up until the end of October, but Clark warned the country’s hotel groups not to be ‘too reckless’ with the tempting deals.

“We shouldn’t panic. We are here for the long haul. Sri Lanka offers a luxury product and we need to keep these premium offerings in place. This is the best way for it to filter down to the small operators, like the jeep drivers, coconut sellers, etc.”

Malik Fernando of Resplendent Ceylon told an audience invited by the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) that it would be down to private stakeholders to ensure the country bounced back as quickly as it could.

Fernando, who helped set up the new Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance in the aftermath of the bombings, said Sri Lanka’s hotel industry was in the vanguard of putting out positive messages that Sri Lanka is open for business.

“The attacks were not about Sri Lanka but were a geo-political issue. As a country, we were as safe on the Monday before the (Sunday) attack as we were on the Saturday…but understandably the world didn’t know this.

“As private stakeholders, our hotels had concerns that that the government was ‘not nimble enough’ in reassuring our global supporters that it was safe to return to Sri Lanka. And doing nothing is never an option in the face of a crisis,” he added.

Fernando said the details of a Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance recovery campaign aimed at consumers would be launched this week.

“We now have over 200 hotels involved with the Alliance. Collectively, we have spoken to people in countries like Australia, the USA and Tunisia, to find out how they put their tourism plans back on track after terrorist incidents. We will drive this recovery forward and will call our government out if they do nothing. Our plan is to take charge of our own destiny and marketing plans,” he said.

Manisha Gunasekera, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK, said the Sri Lankan authorities had taken ‘swift action’ to apprehend the bombers and that a raft of new security procedures, along with better intelligence sharing and global partnerships, were now in place.

“The UK is a very special and important market for us and we will reinforce and continue that momentum and show Sri Lanka for what it is – a wonderful travel destination,” she said.

Among the Sri Lankan celebrities present on the evening in London were Ex-Sri Lanka test cricketer Mahela Jayawardene, who handed out a signed cricket bat which was auctioned for £500.

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