In a grave struggle for survival the business community and the tourism industry in particular are fighting tooth and nail to bring about unity and amity in a society torn apart on the social, political and cultural fronts and a leadership that needs to hear and see the reality of working together. Travel advisories scrapped [...]

Business Times

Unity: Where have all the flowers gone?


In a grave struggle for survival the business community and the tourism industry in particular are fighting tooth and nail to bring about unity and amity in a society torn apart on the social, political and cultural fronts and a leadership that needs to hear and see the reality of working together.

Travel advisories scrapped Sri Lanka from the tourism destination map and gave the island nation a “don’t go there” and “beware” tag. This for a country that received the best destination to visit status just last year! But the industry remains resilient and insists they will rise from the ashes.

Sri Lanka literally had the world at their feet, but the country has returned to square one –as the hotels have gone silent with just a few guests coming in search of a room to stay.

The last of the tourists fled the country with horror stories of Islamic militants bombing three luxury hotels clearly targeting the guests celebrating Easter. Will they tell others of what they saw before the bombing or will they never return? Some will of course never return as their lives ended here in Colombo.

“It is so very unfortunate and I really believe that in a situation where the leadership is dishonest, corrupt and irresponsible and disunited and disjointed, one has to expect such things,” former tourism industry veteran Renton De Alwis told the Business Times on Tuesday.

This is a story of a country waiting to make a comeback and look back at a time when Sri Lanka struggled to survive and reached its zenith – the glory days.

Tourism infancy

In the 1970s the tourism industry saw the start of a tourism industry taking place which had not had an impact from the 1971 JVP led insurgency. The boom commenced then when information travelled slowly and such a militant uprising was contained within weeks.

“People got into tourism like my father (Herbert Cooray) did in 1972, and even when there were controls tourism continued to blossom,” Jetwing Chairman Hiran Cooray told the Business Times on Wednesday.

In fact for the first time Sri Lanka was able to welcome over 400, 000 holidaymakers in 1982. This was a time the tour operators were giving advances for bookings that does not happen today. A few hoteliers were setting up their establishments and travel agents were coming up and this new start saw its first crisis when the riots of 1983 broke out.

“There was chaos. I saw buildings in flames and people and vehicles going amok,” Mr. Cooray recalled.

“It was a time when people were going after innocent people and businesses and homes were completely destroyed.” Along this time was also the rise of the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE terrorists.

Tourism amidst conflicts

This was what most hoped would not break out again in Sri Lanka as this era in history was a time when the country needed to be ashamed of.

“I’ve been through ’83 trying to help even my own colleagues who were being treated terribly and if our leaders don’t get together and not try to score points out of the tragedy and allow extremists to run amok then we would see a repeat of post ’83. So it’s upto our leaders in all spheres even professionals –some have even racist undertones – even the local business community trying to take advantage – but this is not the time – this is the time we must be healed and not add fuel to the fire,” Mr. De Alwis said.

The industry was hit hardest from 1987 – 89 when only over 180, 000 visitors arrived in Sri Lanka but this interestingly the industry survived.

“We survived because tour operators continued to feature Sri Lanka and charter flights did not stop either and the national carrier Air Lanka at the time was flying to Frankfurt, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Geneva,” Mr. Cooray explained.

At that time in order to assist the sector the government provided them with a moratorium on loans that hotels had taken and provided soft loans as well in a bid to retain staff without causing layoffs.

Another peaceful time was when the ceasefire was in place and a new era of peace talks with the LTTE and the government and a peace process was the order of the day.

As a result the 2001-2004 years were considered peaceful that encouraged more travellers to visit the country.

Then the tsunami struck that sent the industry again reeling from its gains made during the preceding years as travellers again left while some were also impacted by the tidal waves that struck the country on December 26.

Numbers-wise there was an influx particularly rising to over 500, 000 but this was mainly a reflection of the aid the country received during that time as opposed to actual travellers visiting the country.

Thereafter the war broke out again that caused the industry to go down again with more state help provided to keep the sector afloat. At this time some of the staff left for good while others were to come back later.

The worst period was during the height of the war from 2006 -2009 when “we barely survived but tour operators continue to sell Sri Lanka but it was never a no-go destination like this time,” Mr. Cooray insisted.

Post war

The number of arrivals picked up after the war years marginally with the first one million arriving in 2012 only three years after the war ended in 2009. This continued to improve to 1.2 million in 2013 and 1.5 million in 2014.

So the industry had a good season during the past decade with most of them investing heavily, new foreign investments coming in, expansion plans taking place and more foreign travellers lured in while domestic travellers also continued to tour the country more freely.

The only concern being that with everything going well for the country they were late to carry out effective campaigns even after all these years to promote the destination.

Back in the spotlight

Now the destination has got itself on the world map with worldwide support in a show of solidarity following the Easter bombings on April 21 that jolted a peaceful nation and a tourism industry to the promise of a future of checkpoints and security screenings at hotels and an armed military presence around the country.

However, it is interesting to find that travellers today are prepared for this kind of situation as they understand the prevalence of the global threat of terrorism with bombings likely to go off in any part of the world.

“Safety is a prerequisite and for that there needs to be leadership in the interest of the country,” Mr. Cooray said highlighting that unity is the need of the hour and people need to work together. Governments in the past took very clear precise decisions so that gave ‘us’ confidence to be in business, he said.

But he noted that none of the investors that had put in their money into the Jetwing brand had ever considered withdrawing under the circumstances and pointed out that they were there for the long term.

Healing, harmony

Today Mr. De Alwis points out that healing process between communities needs to happen and it is upto everyone to assist in it. “It is not merely telling people everything is ok but they need to feel that everything is ok.”

Things look a lot different today with the Islamic militants carrying out attacks even on tourist places. The country has not seen this before as the LTTE had a different agenda and never targeted tourists. But with tourists being the target, however, the country is seeing a new dimension to the terrorism threat. Paris attacks and Bali bombings and their recovery processes cannot be applied here, most analysts point out. Sri Lanka needs to right its many wrongs like overcome disunity between the political parties and leaders and create harmony.

“It’s different because now everything is shaken and we are not ready for it and expectations were higher and investments were higher and the tourism products were targeted,” Tour Operators Association President Harith Perera said.

With about 2000 visitors coming to the country daily it is a wonder where they go but the other most crucial matter are the travel advisories. With a harsh statement out of India against travel to Sri Lanka and China imposing a travel ban the two highest tourist generating markets have almost closed their doors.

For the advisories to improve the land should return to normal – schools open, playing cricket, shops opened, Colombo traffic back with no communal disharmony. Then the ambassadors will look at the situation positively, veteran hotelier Chandra Wickremesinghe said.

Even during the low season last year his hotels were able to obtain 48 per cent occupancy, but this year it would be about 32 per cent and with slashed prices.

It was heartening to note in the aftermath of the Easter bombings the communal strife that set in had the business community rally round spiritual leaders to call for calm. This was supposedly why Sri Lankans saw the spiritual leaders on their television screens calling for calm in a land that needs you to steer your minds to create harmony, you to start unity, you to resume normal life and you to work together with all.

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