A strong comeback

Tourism recovery is accelerating in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs, John Amaratunga talks about the current situation and recovery efforts following the Easter Sunday attacks. ITB Asia News asked how quickly the tourism industry in Sri Lanka has bounced back.

Immediately after the Easter attacks on 21st April 2019, tourist arrivals dropped by as much as 80%. Three top five star hotels were targeted along with three churches and there was a mass exodus of tourists in the days that followed the attacks. However, the government, along with the security forces acted very fast and all those responsible for the attacks were apprehended in a matter of days. As a result of this, security was established in all parts of the country, especially at tourist hotspots. This enabled the government and industry stakeholders to communicate the message that Sri Lanka is safe for travel and is ready to welcome visitors.

Due to these efforts, we saw arrival numbers gradually improving since June and I can confirm that things are now pretty much back to normal as far as the winter bookings are concerned. Sri Lanka is now running a full campaign on CNN and other influential media conveying the fact that we are still the top destination to visit in 2019 as named by Lonely Planet and Travel & Leisure. In terms of numbers, arrivals dropped to 35,000 in May and climbed to nearly 150,000 in August which shows the trajectory of the recovery.

SRI LANKA EXPERIENCED A STEADY GROWTH OF NEARLY FIVE TIMES OVER THE LAST DECADE FROM 450,000 TO 2.5 MILLION TOURIST ARRIVALS.

What are your expectations for 2019?

At the beginning of the year, our target was 2.5 million tourists for the full year 2019, after achieving 2.3 million arrivals in 2018. We experienced a steady growth of nearly ve times over the last decade. Back to 2009, arrivals stood at just 450,000. The hospitality sector has also grown in parallel to tourist arrivals, with all major hotel brands investing in properties in Sri Lanka. As an example, Hilton is building five new hotels across the country. Ritz Carlton, Sheraton, Radisson, Marriot, ITC, and Next are all in the process of opening new hotels. The government has identi ed tourism as a key driver of the economy, accounting for 5% of GDP and employing an estimated 500,000 people. Last year, tourism revenue shot up to US$4.3bn. Given these gures, the government is very keen to promote investment in the sector and is offering attractive incentives. Projects are being fast-tracked and support sectors such as entertainment, and logistics, are being encouraged. Despite the terror attacks, we are confident of achieving over 2 million visitors this year.

Could you tell us about promotional efforts?

We have been planning a massive destination promotion campaign on a global scale for some time now. The Easter attacks derailed the plan to some extent as we needed to change our message, meaning the launch was delayed a little more than anticipated. However, we are carrying out country-specific campaigns in key source destinations as well as road shows. We also participate in all the major travel fairs, and we are now carrying out a strong digital campaign. All these have contributed to the recovery effort.

Some words about Sri Lanka infrastructure investment….

Given the importance of tourism for the government, the investment in infrastructure development has naturally been quite heavy in the recent past. For instance, new highways are being constructed across the country linking distant locations with the capital, new airports are being built for domestic travel, train services are being upgraded, while tourism infrastructure at popular resorts is being modernised. All tourist sites are being given a facelift with upgraded facilities including at wildlife parks, where ticket bookings can now be made online. In fact, most tourism services are available online due to investment in technology

Why is it important for Sri Lanka to be present at ITB Asia?

ITB Asia is of special importance to Sri Lanka for two reasons. One is because our two biggest source markets happen to be from Asia, namely India and China. It is of utmost importance that we continue to grow these markets with new tourism products and sustainability initiatives. One of the most effective ways to achieve these objectives is to make our presence felt at ITB Asia. Secondly we are in the process of recalibrating our strategy to attract tourists from short haul destinations as an interim measure. As such, Asia is now one of our most important focus areas.


Photo: John Amaratunga, Minister of Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs, Sri Lanka