Lessons on managing a crisis
No sooner the LTTE aerial attack on the Katunayake airforce base ended early on Monday, the airport, SriLankan Airlines and tourism authorities got cracking. Airport and airline staff worked round the clock to minimise the impact on delayed flights. Separately Sri Lanka Tourism set up a hotline for visitors and took a media team pronto on Monday morning to the airport to show reporters that things were working as smoothly as possible. Officials were at their desks in Colombo by 3 am the latest to tackle the crisis.
The terrorist attack on a military installation has sent ripples across the country and sparked speculation as to when, how and where the next aerial attack would be. That’s a situation the government would be extremely concerned about.
Apart from that Tourist Board chief Renton de Alwis and his team’s management of the crisis in the aftermath of the 2001 Katunayake airbase attack in which SriLankan lost a few planes, came into good stead this time. Officials moved in swiftly and were positive from the start; “We can manage it. We must stay positive,” one senior official told a colleague, a few minutes after learning about the midnight attack.
It was evident that the tourist industry – ministers, officials, private organizations – worked as a team. “I was amazed to find the Deputy Minister on the road to the airport at 3.30 am to check out things,” exclaimed a senior industry official. Sri Lanka has an admirable quality: it’s resilient to bounce back from a disaster. That was evident the way the authorities moved back into top gear at the airport and in terms of tourism, the biggest casualty in such cases.
Managing a crisis, managing a disaster arising out of a terrorist attack is something that Sri Lankans are learning fast to handle. In fact we are acquiring skills in the long fight against terrorism so much so that other countries are looking at Sri Lanka for lessons on battling global terrorism. Take the Special Task Force for example;The STF has been co-opted into a key advisory group that would provide guidance on security issues for the next Olympic Games in Beijing.
Our private sector itself – particularly the big conglomerates have ridden many a storm over more than two decades of conflict and can provide a lesson or two to global corporations on how to manage a crisis. Hayleys in particular has managed the crisis well in spreading its risk by setting up companies overseas but has also complained that Central Bank restrictions on investing abroad (even with one’s earned foreign exchange) is a major deterrent.
The Hayleys argument is very valid: If there a crisis at home, one needs to spread the risk and then revert back once the risk is over. Many other companies are also thanking their stars like John Keells and Aitken Spence for instance where their hotel investments in the Maldives are paying strong dividends and enabling them to keep the group afloat as the Sri Lankan economy plods on from a couple of good years to a couple of bad ones.
Garment barons like the MAS Group and Brandix are also investing abroad with the former in addition testing the ground with the launch of its own international label in the next few months.
Tourism invariably gets the first hammering in a crisis but most often the reaction doesn’t last for long. Cathay Pacific has suspended its flights and some businessmen have called off their scheduled trips to Colombo. Here again the skills of managing a crisis come into play and the authorities must be happy with the way the crisis was managed and by the swiftness in which officials acted. In fact, a top Asian airline was successfully persuaded to abandon any consideration to suspend flights just after Cathay Pacific’s decision.
The number of tourist arrivals will see a dip in the short term but is bound to pick up in the near future. SriLankan Airlines is heavily focusing on India and is reportedly the biggest foreign airline operator there with an eye on a large number of Indian tourists visiting here. It makes sense anyway in not putting your eggs in one basket and spreading the risk and profit centres.
The stockmarket took a beating last week but the bourse is like a pendulum and sometimes works contrary to expectations. Most investors expect the market to return to normal ground next week. There may be flaws, there may be problems. Yet Sri Lanka’s business community has responded well in the past to a crisis and will do it again and again. There can be no argument that peace and being able to operate in a war-free environment is what everyone desperately needs. Yet in its absence the resilience that we have acquired during years of conflict is something we should be proud of.