Reviving tourism | Daily News

Reviving tourism

The Easter carnage in Colombo and elsewhere was a massive blow to many sectors of the economy, but none is perhaps more badly hit than tourism. The tourism industry was riding a wave of success after the conflict in the North ended exactly 10 years ago with arrivals sometimes surpassing the projected figures. The target of four million tourists a year seemed well within reach.

But the bombings in three major luxury hotels in Colombo (a fourth hotel was targeted, but the suicide bomber failed in his mission), along with the attacks on churches, have dashed these hopes at least for the time being. There have been mass cancellations at many hotels and pictures published in international media show virtually empty hotels and restaurants. Travel advisories published by several countries have made matters worse for the industry.

While there certainly was an intelligence lacuna that made the bombings possible, one wonders whether the bombers could have carried out their dastardly act if the hotels had maintained a higher level of security even after 2009. True, Sri Lankans deserved a respite from the very tight security regulations that prevailed during the conflict period, but the issue here is that we went from maximum security to zero security in the years that followed 2009 with no middle ground. Anyone could walk into any five star hotel at any time with no questions asked. On the other hand, one could not entirely blame the hotels as they were not specifically targeted even by the LTTE, which was wary of antagonizing Western countries where the Tamil Diaspora lived.

But had the hotels (and other places) persisted in having some security measures in place such as frisking, this tragedy could perhaps have been prevented. Even in many countries and cities where there is no sign of conflict, the bigger hotels have baggage and body scanners and even sniffer dogs to ensure the security of their guests. Now that such scanners are being installed in the leading hotels, this practice should be continued in the years to come regardless of whether the present situation fades away or not. It is a minor inconvenience given the larger need for protecting the guests and staff.

The incident also highlights the need to monitor CCTV footage 24/7 with an intense eye – the suspicious behaviour of some of the bombers has clearly been captured on hotel CCTV, but no one apparently raised a red flag. Moreover, hotel staff should generally be able to ‘read’ guests who may pose trouble. There is indeed a need for better training for hotel security and general staff. The Security Forces personnel assigned to hotels after the Easter Sunday events should lend a hand in this regard.

With enhanced security measures firmly in place, the Government must more forcefully convey the message that Sri Lanka is once again a safe destination to visit. All types of media including social media and our overseas missions must be used for this purpose. The existing tourism promotions around the world must be intensified.

The Government has also vowed to offer a package of financial and other incentives to the affected hotels to get back on track. Concessions will also be granted for the import of advanced security equipment. Some of the measures will necessarily apply to the entire industry which has now faced a serious downturn. This is a commendable move in the backdrop of the crucial importance of the tourism industry to the economy.

In the meantime, it is up to the locals to show their support to the hotel industry. It was the locals who virtually sustained the hotel industry in the dark days of 1988-89 and the conflict years from 1983 onwards. Sadly, some elements in the industry have been known to adopt a policy of ‘apartheid’ when it comes to local guests, shunning them in favour of foreign tourists. The latest situation should be food for thought for such elements – even when the good times come again, the local guests should not be forgotten. The authorities should also have a better network of facilities for domestic tourists, who may not be able to afford the top hotels.

There is no doubt that the good times will come again for the tourist industry. The industry bounced back after 30 years of death and destruction and lost no time in climbing to the top. It also emerged almost unscathed after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Resilience is the name of the game and the tourism industry is an expert at it. But the revival should be a team effort by the Government’s tourism agencies, our foreign missions, the inbound travel industry, the media and other relevant stakeholders. No time should be lost in initiating this endeavour, since there are reports that several other countries in the region are already benefitting as a result of the present situation. We are not the only pebble on the tourism beach and we cannot afford to lag. There is an urgent need to get back on track and return to the previous levels for a start.

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