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The second coming of a paradise island: How Sri Lanka bounced back from crisis

Saturday, 02 November 2019

Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN • Updated 31st October 2019

(CNN) — It has mile after mile of powder sand beaches lapped by clear, warm surf. It has beautiful unspoiled jungles.

It has incredible food, UNESCO-rated historical sites and diving resorts, charming railways, hiking, safaris and relaxation.

It was even named the top country to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet.

In other words, it's paradise. But for much of the past six months, these idyllic spots have stood empty of all but a few visitors.

The place is Sri Lanka, the South Asian island nation off the southeastern tip of India, lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

And the reason why no one was visiting? A series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in its capital city Colombo that left 250 people dead in April of this year.

The attack brought a thriving travel industry -- some 2.33 million annual visitors last year -- instantly to its knees as safety fears underscored by official travel warnings drove many people to cancel trips and stay away.

But, against strong odds -- exacerbated by the fact Sri Lanka had just a decade earlier emerged from a bloody 26-year civil war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in the island's north -- the country has begun to reestablish itself as a prime destination.

State of emergency

After the Easter Bombings, visitor numbers in Sri Lanka declined by around 70%.
Courtesy Sri Lanka Tourism

A paradise lost seems to have been born again.

And while this is clearly good news for Sri Lanka, and for those looking to vacation there in the months to come, it's also a valuable case study for the travel industry in how a destination rebounds from adversity. It also sheds light on changing attitudes among tourists to places that have been blighted by violence.

For Sri Lanka, immediately after the attacks things looked bleak. Already reeling from the loss of lives, the island was also forced to face the brutal financial consequences.

Bookings were canceled. Flights were pulled. Hotels shut down. Tour guides, souvenir sellers, drivers -- pretty much anyone whose livelihood depended on tourism -- saw their income vanish overnight.

Tourism is Sri Lanka's third largest foreign exchange earner, bringing around $4.4 billion annually. An estimated half a million Sri Lankans depend on tourism directly, while two million rely on it indirectly.

So the impact was devastating.

In May, a month after the attacks, visitor numbers were down by around 70%.

Caught off guard and unable to pay wages, some employers were forced to let their staff go.

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Visitor decline

Tourism brings around $4.4 billion to the island nation each year.
Pixabay/Creative Commons

Sri Lankan-born Farzana Dobbs, co-owner of boutique hotel Rosyth Estate House, reduced her workers' pay to three-quarters for the months of May and June after guests either canceled or postponed their vacations.

"May was dire," she tells CNN Travel. "We went to full pay from July as we just don't want to lose our workers.

"I think some of the worst hit are the drivers. Most of them have taken leases on their vehicles. They have payments to make and families to look after, and they have no income whatsoever."

Chauffeur and guide Prasad Brandigampola relied on his wife's income when he suddenly found himself with no work, but says many of his peers struggled to make ends meet.

"For two months there was nothing," he says. "Everyone feels it."

Sarah Masters from the UK, who has been traveling to Sri Lanka for about 20 years, felt she had no choice but to cancel her 2019 holiday to the island nation.

"We held on for a while, but the UK Foreign Office said it wasn't safe to go," she tells CNN, referencing the travel warning issued to British travelers after the bombings.

"We finally gave in and canceled when they extended the advice by another two weeks. We were concerned we were going to lose our money."

Masters has many friends who live on the island and says they, like others, have been feeling the strain.

"Our friends who have a hotel business in Sri Lanka have been struggling, which isn't a surprise," she says. "One friend lost her job, as there was no work at the hotel she's based at."

In the weeks after the attacks, Sri Lanka's beaches and tourist areas remained pretty much deserted, with hotel occupancy dropping by around 85%.

Deserted island

The decline in tourists meant that many workers found themselves unemployed or with little income.
Courtesy Sri Lanka Tourism

The tourism industry the country had come to rely so heavily on was on life support. If it was to avoid total collapse, Sri Lanka desperately needed a plan.

The solution, it realized early on, was not to sit idly by and wait for recovery. It needed to go on the offensive to quickly win back its visitors.

Less than a month after the attacks, the government began working with a team of experts in crisis management.

Kishu Gomes, chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism, made no secret of the fact his country would have to work hard to reel back visitors. In May, he spoke of "aggressively planning to reassure the world" that it would be safe for them to return.

That first step clearly paid off. Just weeks later, in June, many countries, including the United States, revised their advice to their citizens. Warnings of possible imminent attacks were replaced by "exercise caution" notices.

While dozens of people suspected of links to the attacks were arrested in the immediate aftermath, by July the government was reviewing law enforcement. A former police inspector and ex-defense secretary were detained amid accusations of grave negligence.

It's uncertain whether these measures or the fact that hotels were slashing prices by up to 60% can be credited but, the first shoots of recovery were starting to be seen. Visitors were trickling back.

Also aiding the recovery was Sri Lanka's July decision to reintroduce visa-free arrivals for visitors from an expanded list of countries that already included EU nations and the United States. Further measures included a reduction in airline ground charges and aviation fuel prices.

Numbers remained significantly down on the previous year, but the disparity was dropping steadily.

According to the country's Tourism Ministry, a total of 115,701 international tourists arrived in Sri Lanka during July, which marked a decline of over 40% from that same period last year. In August, arrivals increased to 142,587, a 28.3% decline from August 2018. By September the drop was 27.2% year-on-year, with 108,575 arrivals, down from 149,087.

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Slow recovery

Visitor numbers have been steadily rising again since June.
Courtesy Sri Lanka Tourism

Sam Clark, co-founder of Experience Travel Group, a tour operator specializing in authentic travel experiences in Asia, says that a revival in interest in Sri Lankan holidays could also be partly put down to a willingness among travelers to show solidarity.

"We've had a lot of people calling to say they'd like to come out and support Sri Lanka and now seems like a good time to go," Clark tells CNN Travel.

Of course, Sri Lanka's plight isn't unique. It's one of several global destinations to have experienced terrorist attacks over the past two decades, however experts say the relative speed with which the island has bounced back could be down to changing attitudes among travelers.

The Indonesian island of Bali experienced two major deadly terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005. The first killed over 200 people, more than half of which were tourists, while the second resulted in the deaths of 20 people.

The Indonesian island nation experienced a dip in visitors on both occasions, but while it managed to recover each time, this took years, not months.

Tunisia was also struck by a series of attacks aimed at tourists in 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 59 foreign visitors.

The shocking incidents led to beach resorts being closed and the north African country being removed from the destination lists of charter airlines and tour operators.

However, the Tunisia tourism industry has clawed its way back in the last few years, largely thanks to government efforts to improve security and the manner in which its security forces respond to terrorist threats.

As a result, the country is expecting to log a record 9 million tourists in 2019.

Traveler resilience

Some travelers are choosing to go to Sri Lanka sooner than planned, to show solidarity.
Courtesy Sri Lanka Tourism

"If you compare Sri Lanka with Egypt and Tunisia, these countries have had a frequent number of attacks. You would think tourists would never go back," says Dr. Yeganeh Morakabati, an expert in tourism disaster management, recovery and impacts at the UK's Bournemouth University.

"Every time they've been attacked there has been a drop. But after a short while, the numbers go back up.

"In Tunisia, the attack was targeted at tourists. And even with that, they are recovering."

According to Dr. Morakabati, this suggests tourists aren't as deterred by terrorist attacks as they were a decade or so ago.

"Terrorism does reduce willingness to travel," she adds. "But markets are not reacting in the same way they used to. If you look at the Bali attacks of 2002, people were more shocked than you would say they are with Sri Lanka now."

This certainly seems to be the case when taking a close look at hotel bookings before and after such attacks.

For instance, New York hotels took 34 months to recover from the 9/11 attacks in 2001, while bookings had returned to normal in London nine months after the 7/7 bombings in 2005.

Meanwhile the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 had a very limited effect on reservations.

However, a 2015 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council found that while the travel and tourism sector has become more resilient over the years, the time required to bounce back is very specific to the destination affected.

It can range from as short as two months to as long as 22 months, with the average recovery time being 13 months.

"The perceived level of safety and security is a key decision-making factor for travelers in selecting their destination," says Tiffany Misrahi, vice president of policy at the WTTC.

"But what you deem unsafe changes with time and familiarity with a destination. Overall, people tend to avoid destinations where there are known conflicts or crisis events.

"Destinations which people feel they know and trust, and believe in the stability of the society, are likely to be more resilient," she adds, citing the 2017 London Bridge attack, which didn't affect overall international arrivals that year, as an example.

"People are becoming more resilient to shocks. But different types of travelers have different risk thresholds."

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Government action

The train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy is one of Sri Lanka's main attractions.
Pixabay/Creative Commons

Morakabati stresses that Sri Lanka's timeline to full recovery will ultimately depend on whether there is another attack or not.

"Terrorism attracts a lot of attention," she says. "But the shorter the period since the terrorist attack, the higher subjective probability people attach to it.

"The key task is to mitigate the occurrence of similar attacks. It's very difficult to prevent, but if Sri Lanka can mitigate it, they will recover."

Misrahi shares this sentiment, stressing that the way a destination responds to a crisis is critical, as the wrong approach can stall the process considerably.

"It is important for both governments and the private sector to improve their management to effectively address the crisis and enhance their responsiveness to shocks so as to ensure a speedy recovery," she adds.

"In terms of preparedness, building strong coalitions is essential. It is also very important to understand one's vulnerabilities, assess readiness and create emergency action plans and practicing them."

She also affirms that Sri Lanka has the potential to emerge from this greater than before, provided the government responds in the correct way.

"A crisis can sometimes be an opportunity to rebuild stronger and better and even rethinking a destination's product offering," says Misrahi. "In a way, a destination can start fresh."

While there are still concerns that Sri Lanka's upcoming presidential elections could renew tensions in the island nation, hotel worker Harin Thomas also feels that some good can come from the devastating events of April 21.

He notes that security on the island nation was stepped up considerably in the months after the attacks, while hotels and tour operators have had time to regroup during what would have been one of their peak seasons.

"This situation has given everyone the chance to see things in a different way," he says. "We are looking at how we can offer a better service in the future."

Thomas attributes this adaptability to the spirit of a nation that's experienced more than its fair share of trials and tribulations over the years.

"Yes, we had a very unfortunate incident," he continues. "But we are very resilient. As a nation, we have decided to move forward."

(Courtesy by: CNN Travel)