Sri Lanka’s tourism: Not giving up amidst Covid-19 uncertainty

The second-largest foreign exchange earner of the island, pre-COVID at least, the tourism industry has been backed into a corner once again due to the second wave of COVID-19 cases reported around the island over the past few weeks.

The imposition of global travel restrictions earlier this year, preventing free movement from country to country in a bid to curb the pandemic, put a spoke in the industry’s plans to reach 3.5-4 million tourist arrivals and USD 5 billion in earnings for 2020 – promising targets as the industry was on a recovery path following the devastating April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.

The number of tourist arrivals has been zero since April this year, with March arrivals dipping 70% as well. In this backdrop, Sri Lanka Tourism has been tirelessly working towards keeping the “Sri Lankan holiday dream” alive by engaging in online collaborations with travel influencers in the hope that once airports and travel hubs open, Sri Lanka will be at the top of the mind in international travel destinations.

Whilst the industry was hopeful after the curfew was lifted in May, adapting to the situation by pivoting to domestic tourism to keep itself afloat, with the latest developments, it is left with no choice but to re-strategize yet again to ensure its survival.

Coping safely

Speaking to Colombo Gazette on the subject, Padmi Fernando, the Director of Sales and Marketing at Movenpick, one of Colombo’s leading city hotels, said: “As an industry we were kind of shaken purely because it was growing in leaps and bounds. It was also on a recovery phase after the Easter attacks (21 April 2019).

“Initially, yes, it was difficult,” she said, “but as we understood the situation, we were able to control it better. We have begun to live with it whilst using measures to control it.”

Hotels in Sri Lanka are required to follow the local health guidelines stipulated by the Ministry of Health and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) as outlined in the “Sri Lanka Tourism Operational Guidelines with Health Protocols”. Adherence to the same is ensured by the SLTDA through audits conducted by KPMG, it is learnt.

Needless to say, whilst the prioritization of safety and implementation of safety measures come with its challenges, it must be done nevertheless.

We asked Fernando how they were able to adjust. “We planned it well. We are always liaising with the Ministry of Health Officer for our zone. The SLTDA audits us from time to time too.”

Global chains have additional health guidelines to adhere to, added Fernando, sharing that Movenpick was recently certified by the Accor Hotels Group and Bureau Veritas under its health and safety standards label which was launched earlier this year to help hospitality businesses open safely.

The biggest asset

However, simply dictating that guidelines need to be followed is not where it ends. The stakeholders involved play a crucial role in ensuring the protocols are followed – the main stakeholder being huma resources.

It goes without saying that the driving force of Sri Lanka’s tourism is its people, specially known for their hospitality and warm smiles. Sadly, many from the industry were faced with hardships over the past months; whilst some were laid off due to cost cuts, others were forced to close shop due to lack of income, and for those who remained, staying motivated was a challenge.

Speaking to Fernando on the same, she said: “In this context, we ensure that we deal with our staff emotionally; we continuously engage with them and we know that communication is important. Leadership also plays a vital role. We need to build that sense of unity; that we are all in this together, that we are all in survival mode.”

In terms of having to cut down costs, we asked Fernando how that was managed. “In a hotel there are certain benefits you give your staff which you may need to cut down, and when you do that, you need to do it in a fair manner so that you don’t create any unnecessary issues among the employees. You have to have care in the center of everything.”

Sharing an example of a measure Movenpick took in keeping their employees motivated when the hotel was closed during the lockdown, she said: “At this time we came up with a home delivery service of our own called Gourmet by Movenpick, for which we used our own employees to do the delivery service. It helped them earn something, and they valued it; they valued the fact that we didn’t go with a third party,” she said.

Evolving target market

The introduction of Movenpick’s delivery service to cater to local customers is one way in which it has managed the lack of international visitors.

Other hotels too resorted to catering to local tourists, and this supported the industry slowly but surely crawling back to its feet over the past few months. Hotel chains across the island were pushing credit card deals advertising rates for locals discounted between 30% and sometimes even 60%, evolving to keep afloat. Needless to say, this led to high competition in that arena.

In changing strategies from being a city hotel that catered almost 90% to international travelers and 10% to local travelers, to doing a complete 180, whilst also trying to differentiate itself from the competition, Fernando shared: “What we can do to attract domestic customers has changed. As everybody’s changed their strategy to that, you need to know how to be different. How we are doing that is by creating loyalty and giving value to our customers.” She shared that while the room occupancy has reduced, the hotel’s food and beverage outlets have many days of high occupancy.

However, it is doubtful that the tourism industry can sustain on domestic tourism alone. While there was hope of opening airports to certain contingents of travelers – such as the 44,000 Russian tourists planned for this month for example – in “travel bubbles”, the new COVID cases, which stand at more than 1,400 since 3 October, has put these plans on hold.

In a September 2020 report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) titled “Reviving Tourism amidst COVID-19 pandemic”, it states, in a scenario analysis of domestic tourists replacing foreign tourists, based on the number of tourists (%), Sri Lanka is in the red zone, at approximately -55%. Meaning that the ratio of the difference between outbound and inbound tourists with respect to inbound tourists in Sri Lanka is -55%, meaning that the local tourists in Sri Lanka are insufficient to compensate for international tourist arrivals.

The report also went on to state that India is Sri Lanka’s ideal regional partner in establishing a bilateral travel bubble with its largest partner. However, even so, the results were bleak, as the scenario analysis revealed that; assuming domestic tourists that would otherwise leave the country would stay at home, the difference between international tourist arrivals, and the sum of inbound tourists from the economy’s preferred partner and its own domestic tourists, divided by the total international tourist arrivals, resulted in a ratio of -50% for Sri Lanka.

Pivoting again for the future

Asked Fernando what their plans are for the future of the industry, she stated: “Most of our plans would be related to what the Government and the Tourism Board will do.”

On that note, in its continued bid to recovering the tourism sector, Sri Lanka Tourism on Monday (12) estimates its efforts starting in February this year in the form of the SLTPB’s Visiting Bloggers programme, Travel Influencer Campaign, and hosting of Family Travel Bloggers, have created over 540 posts on various travel blogs and popular social media platforms during the lockdown in the global arena. The influencers have, to date, reached up to 6 million global audiences; their estimated overall engagements counted a massive 2,590,000 as of 10 August 2020. The total commercial value of this combined promotion is equivalent to Rs. 30 million.

In addition, Sri Lanka Tourism has designed a promotion pushing Sri Lanka as a “Still Fun & Safe” destination, which will be ready to launch once the country announces the reopening for international tourists, the SLTDA said.

It added that plans are underway to activate a dedicated content-driven influencer campaign by Sri Lanka Tourism targeting key source markets for destination Sri Lanka including the UK, Europe, and other crucial source markets including Australia, India, the USA, etc. Through this short-term campaign, Sri Lanka Tourism expects to gain collective support from leading travel influencers, specifically from those who have visited Sri Lanka in the past and those who are in a position to recreate fresh travel content endorsing Sri Lanka to their millions of global audiences.

Sri Lanka Tourism is committed to ensuring that when the world’s Post-COVID season arrives, this beautifully bountiful destination stays right on top of the prospective traveler’s bucket list of things to do.

(Compiled by Bhavna Mohan for Colombo Gazette)

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