Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

Sri Lanka's second largest foreign exchange earner rocked by terrorism

Lonely Planet declared island nation top tourist destination for 2019

The number of visitors to Sri Lanka was up 5% month-on-month in March, but the string of attacks threaten to undo the country's gains in the sector. Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
The number of visitors to Sri Lanka was up 5% month-on-month in March, but the string of attacks threaten to undo the country's gains in the sector. Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

Eight bombings on Easter Sunday that killed more than 200 people, risk reversing the rehabilitation of Sri Lanka's tourism industry, the second largest foreign exchange earner for the island nation, which emerged from a 26-year civil war a decade ago.

The bombings that hit the capital city of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, including three five-star hotels, threaten to jeapordise Sri Lanka's thriving tourism industry which the World Bank has said can "counterbalance" the effects of other "sluggish" economic indicators like slowing remittance outflows and a widening trade deficit.

The country's economy is forecast to expand 3.5 per cent this year, up from 3.2 per cent in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund and the island nation, declared by Lonely Planet as the top tourist destination for 2019, was aiming to welcome four million tourist arrivals this year, reaping $5 billion in foreign exchange after welcoming more than 2.3 million visitors last year.

The number of visitors were up nearly 5 per cent in March to 244,238, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and the industry was set to weather monsoon season on the back of a free-visa period starting May 1 to travelers from 30 countries including the US, Canada, Singapore and the EU, among others.

"Tourism is our number one industry," Dinesh N. Perera, the owner of Blue Lanka Tours in Colombo, told The National in a phone interview. The recovery of the industry "will depend on how the government responds to these events."

A mandatory curfew - from 6pm to 6am - and a social media ban were two of the first actions the government took in the hours following the attacks.

Mr Perera, who started his company just before the civil war ended in 2009, said Blue Lanka does 70 to 80 tours a month, amid "rapid growth" in the industry, bringing tourists from all over the world to the country's picturesque wildlife sanctuaries, coastlines and cultural sites on multi-day tours. Following Sunday's events, he expects those numbers to plunge to only 15 tours per month for the next half year at least.

Since the civil war ended in 2009, tourism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka. 
Since the civil war ended in 2009, tourism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka. 

Mr Perera said he has already received tour cancellations and half a dozen calls from clients in Europe who put their holiday plans on hold due to the violence. He expected customers who live further west to follow suit once they wake up to the news.

A spokesperson for Soul Trek, another tour operator out of Colombo, said she was "hopeful" the attacks would not affect operations. So far, she had yet to receive any cancellations.

Yoho Sri Lanka, the fastest growing hospitality brand in the country which rents hotel rooms, guest houses and apartments, also received cancellations. A spokesperson said it was still too soon to tell what the impact would be to the business.

In the UAE, which has about 24 daily flights to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines, Etihad, Emirates and flydubai, flight schedules remained unchanged.

Locations of the blasts.
Locations of the blasts.

Travellers flying out of Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport have been advised to arrive at least four hours ahead of their flight time, due to increased security.

Updated: April 21, 2019 05:23 PM

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