Sri Lanka is ready for ambitious comeback this winter season: Tourism leaders

SLTDA Chairman says SL is all set for a bounce back after 2018 Expresses confidence in achieving 1 m arrivals and over $ 1.5 b earnings by 2022 endSteps up efforts to increase air connectivity, seating capacities, jet fuel availability SLAITO Chief calls for global trade promotions to signify SL is open for business, to counter adverse publicityTHASL President asserts SL needs to thrive than survive from 2023 onwards

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is ramping up efforts to achieve the set target of one million arrivals and boost foreign exchange inflows to overcome the economic woes.

Despite limited financial resources for global promotions, the authorities along with private sector players are working tirelessly to explore various alternate cost-effective avenues to make this winter season a great comeback for the industry, as well as for the economy.

“Sri Lanka Tourism is doing everything possible to ensure that our product is in good shape for this peak season. We must also be mindful of the stiff competition and the increasing cost of living globally. However, with the relaxed travel advisories on Sri Lanka, the destination is once again in good demand. We are prepared for a bounce this winter after 2018,” Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority Chairman Priantha Fernando told the Daily FT.

He pointed out that despite adverse travel advisories, the UK topped the tourist traffic to Sri Lanka with 18% or 6,500 in August, showcasing faith in the destination. 

The Government is pinning a lot of hopes on tourism as a low-hanging fruit to boost foreign exchange earnings amidst the ongoing economic crisis.

Fernando also said urgent efforts are underway to increase the air connectivity and seating capacity operating into Sri Lanka, whilst noting the Energy Ministry and Ports, Shipping and Aviation Ministry had assured support to keep the tourism sector ticking in the upcoming holiday season.

“If we can guarantee international airlines sufficient supply of fuel for the return trip, most of them would resume operations to Colombo and I believe we must thrive this winter. We also need to fast-track our negotiations with Aeroflot to draw a significant number of Russian tourists,” he explained.

Following the acute short supply of jet fuel during the past couple of months, several airlines had to reduce passenger capacity and cargo loads to carry out the additional fuel for their return trip, whilst some reduced or cancelled their operations in Sri Lanka. 

The situation compelled several international airlines including the national carrier – SriLankan Airlines to fly to Trivandrum, Chennai, and Kochi airports in South India to refuel before continuing to Colombo.

He outlined the UK, Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Netherlands, and Russia as key tourist destinations Sri Lanka could pin hope for arrivals this winter.

Fernando also expressed confidence that Sri Lanka could achieve its set target of one million tourists whilst earning over $ 1.75 billion by year-end.

Reopening China for inbound travel and resumption of direct flights to Russia as per the SLTDA Chief would be a game changer for Sri Lanka to boost arrivals from 2023 onwards.

“We can easily expect 75,000 to 80,000 seats from Russia if Aeroflot can resume operations in the immediate future and anticipate around 125,000 to 150,000 from next year onwards. From China we can expect over 200,000 as they are waiting to explore post-two years of restrictions,” he opined.

Two leading industry bodies – the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) told the Daily FT that despite the daunting task, they were ready for a good winter season with characteristic hospitality. 

“The whole industry is looking forward to the upcoming winter season which we are hopeful will operate with some semblance of normalcy. The bookings in the formal sector look reasonably healthy. As for preparedness, the DMCs and hotels are ready and eagerly awaiting the visitors.

“Going by how we handled the tourist arrivals during the height of the crisis when fuel and gas were in complete short supply, I think we are prepared for winter and look forward to all the bookings we can get. Sri Lanka needs a good winter to help uplift the economy with an inflow of foreign exchange,” SLAITO President Nishad Wijetunga told the Daily FT.

He claimed the adverse travel advisories on Sri Lanka were a key reason for the poor summer season, whilst noting industry understands that as responsible entities, the foreign governments had no choice. 

“We are therefore grateful to all of them for having understood the situation and for easing the advisories, which augurs well for Sri Lanka ahead of the coming winter season. We are hopeful that bookings will now pick up for winter. The lifting of the advisories is indeed timely and very welcome,” he added.

SLAITO Chief is banking on most of the arrivals from the traditional winter markets such as the UK and Europe.

 “We are confident, given that the advisories have been eased by those governments – the existing bookings will remain and we will have more bookings for winter in the coming weeks. September and October are the booking months for winter which is why we say the lifting of advisories was indeed timely,” he said.

Citing Russia as a major winter market, Wijetunga recalled that Russian tourists played a major role in the revival of tourism post-COVID pandemic. 

“We need to work on getting the Russian tourists back by lobbying Aeroflot to operate to Sri Lanka and also explore the possibility of SriLankan Airlines resuming their very successful flights to Moscow. Central Asia is another market we have to work on. These are all winter markets and we have to explore all avenues of opening up the required air links from these markets,” he pointed out.

Acknowledging the shortage of air connectivity given the reduction of flights, he however expressed confidence in handling the winter traffic if the jet fuel is made available as promised – the airlines will look positively at Sri Lanka.

“One million tourists by the end of the year is not an easy task, but with the right promotions and participation at the various fairs, we can generate the interest and hype for a good winter season, which is the main tourist season that brings in the numbers to Sri Lanka. 

“After all, tourism is the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ as it were, to bring in the much needed foreign exchange to the country, I can state with confidence that SLAITO is working only towards achieving this one goal,” he stressed.

He also said it was extremely important that the industry participants with the local industry partners in international fairs such as WTM and ITB carry one clear message to the world and that is that Sri Lanka is open and ready to welcome the world.

 “This is particularly important due to the negative media publicity that has gone on around the world in recent months, which we now have to counter,” Wijetunga pointed out.  

THASL President M. Shanthikumar said Sri Lanka needs to thrive rather than survive from 2023 onwards.

 “Domestic tourists acted as the backbone of the industry during the pandemic and economic crisis. I think it was one of the eye-openers for the industry to understand the importance of domestic visitors for tourism. However, we need international travellers to thrive in this winter season. We have got a good interest for winter as we look ahead and hope the confirmed reservations will start to flood in from this month onwards,” he explained.

There are 240 hotels registered with the SLTDA, and together Sri Lanka has close to 50,000 rooms to be filled in this peak season.

“We have already got inquiries coming from the traditional markets such as the UK and Western Europe. I am confident Sri Lanka can achieve the one million target and achieve around $ 1.5 billion in income by the end of this year. 

“Realising these targets will be a good stepping stone for us in the next few years as well as for the revival process of the industry and the economy,” he explained.

Shanthikumar said everyone must understand the importance of the tourism industry and its contribution to the overall economic revival and development.

“Over 90% of the foreign exchange earned by the industry stays within the economy and it trickles down from top to the grassroots levels. As an industry, we are all working very closely with the Ministry and the various tourism authorities to achieve the results the tourism sector and the country need at this crucial juncture,” he added.

He also said the lifting of certain travel advisories came with an overall sense of celebration and relief after three years of battling for survival. 

“It is good to get back to business,” he added. 

Despite warnings of high global inflation, he said the industry is prepared for anything.

 “We have got no choice, but to just get organised, recruit staff where we can, and just be ready for a busy one and cross our fingers and hope they are coming. 

“Dealing with the challenges of growth is a lot better than what we had to deal with in the past couple of years with the pandemic. But certainly, for us, as we head towards the winter, which is more of our traditional peak – it is good having a bit of a runway to recover,” Shanthikumar said.

Both industry bodies commended the steps taken by the Tourism Minister and Sri Lanka Tourism to market the destination and to ease the visa process amidst the economic crisis and shortage of foreign exchange for overseas promotions. 

There are over 300,000 people directly engaged in the tourism industry, while over 200,000 are indirectly employed and nearly three million dependents. Given the multiple and consecutive setbacks the industry has faced post-Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, around 40% of the employees have moved out of the industry with the uncertainties they have endured to provide for their families. The extension of financial moratoriums to the triple-hit tourism industry has now risen to a staggering Rs. 600 billion. 

The industry stakeholders asserted that the steady influx of international travellers from November onwards was extremely important for the revival process of the sector and the economy.