Reviving tourism | Daily News

Reviving tourism

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka used to earn around US$ 5 billion a year from tourism. It was well on its way to meet the initial target of three million tourists a year. However, the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns decimated the international travel and tourism industry. There has been a 75 per cent drop in the number of international travellers last year from the 1,500 million international tourism arrivals in 2019 (World Tourism Organisation data). Collective global tourism earnings, amounting to US$ 1,481 billion in 2019 (WTO figures), were reduced to a trickle. Sri Lanka, one of the most alluring destinations in the world, too was caught up in this maelstrom.

Our tourism industry and hence the economy, took a huge hit as a result of this downturn. Sri Lanka itself was under a strict lockdown for around three months and all the international airports were kept closed to incoming flights and passengers for a far longer period. They were only opened to travellers a few months ago and even then under strict entry conditions aimed at preventing the COVID-19 spread.

There is no doubt that these measures including multiple PCR tests and in some cases quarantine, were needed at the time they were stipulated, but now we have to re-evaluate them in terms of current developments. Vaccination campaigns have been undertaken successfully in many of our source markets. In any case, like most other countries, we can open our borders only to vaccinated travellers, apart from those under 12 who have not yet been vaccinated in any country.

A huge controversy has erupted in mainstream and social media over the proposals submitted by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) to exempt tourists who meet certain criteria from some of the more rigorous entry requirements.

Among them are: To remove the requirement for a PCR test to be conducted 72 hours before boarding the flight for fully vaccinated persons; No PCR testing for children below 12 years; To allow for Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) to be conducted for tourists on arrival at the airport. It has also suggested to exempt fully vaccinated SriLankan Airlines flight crews from wearing PPE kits on flights to and from certain markets, but there does not seem to be any rationale for this proposal, unlike the other proposals which seem to be rather reasonable.

One silver lining that has emerged is the arrival of more than 5,000 tourists last month from various countries even amidst the current restrictions such as multiple PCR tests. This is just a fraction of the 2019 monthly figures, but one cannot expect more individual tourists to come at this stage. Therefore, it is vital to tap in to the charter and package tourism markets. These groups can also be more easily accommodated in bio-bubbles. In this light, it makes sense to loosen some of the restrictions that may inhibit our tourism drive, which will soon have a new five-year plan aimed at the post-pandemic period. The key lies in controlling COVID within the country until it becomes endemic just like the common cold and letting in visitors with restrictions that are not too loose or too tight. We have to take a middle-of-the-road approach here. This will enable Sri Lanka to get out of the ‘Red Lists’ in some key tourism markets. The Government’s move to grant six-months visas to “digital nomads” for a reasonable US$ 85 will also stimulate interest in Sri Lanka from those who like to “work from anywhere”.

In the meantime, the resumption of services by many airlines and the announcements of new flights by several others should be music to the ears of those in the tourism industry. Emirates is starting its famous fifth freedom flight to the Maldives from Colombo, which will enable tourists to explore both countries in one go. Air France will fly to Colombo from Paris after a lapse of almost 20 years from November, a city that SriLankan will also serve from that month.

Edelweiss, a subsidiary of Swissair and Aeroflot will also fly in from November from Zurich and Moscow respectively. SriLankan has also begun flying to Kathmandu and Nairobi as well as to several Indian cities. The Indian airline IndiGo is also restarting flights from Chennai, Kochi and Mumbai. Some airlines such as Biman Bangladesh and US-Bangla are also waiting to fly to Colombo. Most other airlines which were already flying to Colombo have relaunched their flights. All these new services will mean extra seats into Colombo for the upcoming winter tourist season. The possible relaxation of some restrictions and the six month visas will spur more tourists to visit Sri Lanka.

Many travellers around the world are waiting for the world to open up to explore new destinations. First movers will have an advantage in this regard. Sri Lanka must make use of this opportunity, balancing the needs and concerns of both the health and tourism sectors. The next year could be a ‘year of recovery’ for the tourism industry and we should have a firm strategy to exploit that opportunity.

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