ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44
Financial Times  

Travel advisories: Not all gloom and doom

By Natasha Gunaratne

Tourists waiting to leave at the departure lounge

The LTTE aerial attack on Sri Lanka's military airbase next to the international airport is expected to impact on the sensitive tourism industry. Already Cathay Pacific has suspended flights to and from Sri Lanka until further notice. In addition, Australia issued stringent warnings against travel to the entire island saying, "We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Sri Lanka at this time because of ongoing civil unrest, the volatile security situation and the very high risk of terrorist attacks. Attacks could occur at any time, anywhere in Sri Lanka. Australians could inadvertently become victims of violence directed at others, in particular Sri Lankan government and military targets."

Sri Lanka Tourist Board (SLTB) figures show that there were 56,553 tourist arrivals in January 2007, up 8.5% for the corresponding month in 2006. But arrivals in February showed a sharp decline at numbering 43,051, down 18.3% from 52,687 in February 2006. Yet some countries like Britain, despite the events of this past week, have not revised their travel advisories. On the other hand if people actually took the time to read the travel advisories for Sri Lanka, they might be surprised to learn that it does not spell the death of tourism here. Recent media reports have painted a harsh picture of the deterioration in tourism and have attributed it to the advisories but travel industry officials told The Sunday Times FT that this is just not so. They say Britain, from where thousands of tourists visit the island each year, advises its nationals against traveling to the North and East, where there has been escalating violence and hostilities but in no way restricts travel to the rest of the country.

Travel advisories are generally issued by various foreign and commonwealth offices to warn people of potential dangers they might face when visiting certain destinations, be it on terrorism, violence or disease. Tour operators are confronted with several legalities when it comes to operating a business and promoting certain destinations.

MICE seeks better recognition from government
Despite a downturn in the tourism market due to the current security situation in the country, the Meetings Incentives Conferences & Exhibitions (MICE) market in Sri Lanka is expected to show strong growth this year, the industry says.

Arjun Dharmadasa, President of the Sri Lanka Association of Professional Conference & Exhibition Organisers (SLAPCEO) says this is due to their brand of tourism; it is under exposed and basically concentrated in the city.

“It is the type of tourism that we should be putting our shoulder to improve, as this can expand to become a very big earner in the tourism industry,” Dharmadasa said in a statement. MICE tourism also known as business tourism has the advantage of having high spending travelers rather than the low budget tourist that Sri Lanka is currently attracting. MICE has gradually seen an increase in the past years and now holds about 15 percent of the Sri Lankan tourism market.

However, the SLAPCEO President says the industry is yet to see some recognition and support from the government.
“It is our firm hope that the new minister will see the importance of this segment in tourism and give it its right place and position when promoting Sri Lankan tourism. We are yet to gain any official position in the newly appointed board of the Convention Bureau,” Dharmadasa says.

With the new Tourism Act which is to be implemented shortly, the SLAPCEO expects the MICE market to get the stipulated four per cent of the total promotional budget.
The SLAPCEO has five permanent members in its Association i.e. Lanka Exhibition & Conference Services, Aitken Spence Travels, Dell Air, John Keells and Jetwing Travels. Three others are also expected to join the Association shortly -- Hemtours, Swedish Trading and Nelus Advertising.

Dharmadasa says that it is encouraging to note that at present the government has categorized the MICE market as a separate industry and not just another group under the tourism sector. “This market cannot be treated as just another product under the tourism umbrella, like adventure-tourism, wild life tourism, beach tourism, weddings or eco-tourism,” he added.

Despite the lack of proper infrastructure like a large purpose built exhibition centre, Sri Lanka has a lot of potential in the MICE market. Market specialists say that a location like the BMICH which is now used for exhibitions was built for conferences and therefore does not have the necessary infrastructure for exhibitions. An ideal exhibition centre should have at least 20,000 sq meters and the BMICH has only around 4,000 sq. metres of air-conditioned exhibition space.

“Having a purpose built exhibition centre will certainly help” says Dharmadasa. “This can become a chicken and egg situation – where investment and potential business is concerned. Should we build the infrastructure before looking for the business or vice-versa? In my opinion we should first go out and pitch for the business, investors for infrastructure will automatically come in when they see the potential.”

Dharmadasa said that an ideal exhibition centre should have concrete floor which could be carpeted, large service entrances that trucks and cranes could be brought in for loading and unloading of heavy goods like vehicles and machinery, very high roof with no ceiling, proper air conditioning, large parking space, good toilets to handle the crowds that would attend the fairs, close proximity to hotels, close proximity to the airport and good shuttle service.

BOI says no investor affected by airstrike
The Board of Investment of Sri Lanka has re-assured the investor community, the public and all stakeholders in the investment effort of the country that the Katunayake Export Processing Zone, or any other export processing zone, was not affected by LTTEair strike on the airforce base.

“We also wish to add that the management of the zone is functioning normally and that there has been no disruption in the functioning of any of the factories at the KEPZ.

All factories within the zone and outside are operating as normal and are engaged in the import and export activities as usual,” the BOI said in a statement.

It thanked members of the investor community who have expressed continued confidence in Sri Lanka.

They must have liability insurance cover for passengers sent through their business. If governments issue warnings that travel to certain countries should be avoided, tour operators cannot promote or sell that destination. So far, Britain has no restrictions on tour operators against promoting Sri Lanka because travel advisories are not a deterrent. Recently, the Acting British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Leslie Craig, spoke at the launch of the Consular Road Show and said that "Travel advice is non-political. It is up-dated regularly to reflect changes in the situation. We hope that it will help British nationals visiting the cultural triangle, hill country, Colombo or the southern beaches of Sri Lanka to have a safe and enjoyable time, while making clear that they should not travel to the north and east of the country."

Craig further said the British government publishes travel advisories for every country in the world and that 'protecting British nationals is at the forefront of the British government's activity overseas.' The British are Sri Lanka's largest and in that respect, most valued tourists with around 90,000 visiting the country each year. The slew of travel advisories issued by various countries has negatively impacted tourism in this country but those in the tourist industry say that Britain has been fair in its advisories.

SLTB Chairman Renton De Alwis told The Sunday Times FT that travel advisories are a reality in foreign relations. "What we really have to focus on is to position the real situation. It is true that so far, no tourist has ever been involved or has been targeted in any violence since 1983." De Alwis said that some of the travel advisories correctly reflect the current situation in the North and East and that the rest of the country is normal.

He said travel to the country is not discouraged except through some of the travel advisories. "We need to focus on the positive things that are happening in Sri Lanka," he said. "Safety of a visitor is primary to the tourism authority in Sri Lanka. We would not encourage anyone to visit areas that are not safe. The reality is that most of the country except the North and East does not have issues which make it unsafe. But each country’s foreign office has the resonsibiltity of issuing advisories." De Alwis added that people who come to the country know the reality of the situation. "Sri Lankan tourism has to position the right perception in the minds of people and stay positive. Most importantly, we have to take care of our repeat visitors."

Countries like Thailand have warning against Avian or bird flu which some tourists might see as a greater travel deterrent. According to De Alwis, the number of British tourists to the country has remained fairly stable despite dips during certain periods of time. However, he said the same cannot be said of France. "We have had an issue with France because their travel advisories did not allow travel agents in France to sell tours because it was restrictive," he said. "The loss to the French travel industry is about 10 million euros a month. Recently, the president of the travel agents association of France was here in Sri Lanka and he met with the French ambassador to impress upon him the need to take a re-look at the situation."

Britain issues travel advisories through a website, , and lists travel advice by country. Some advisories are updated regularly depending on the activities. The travel advisory for Sri Lanka says, "We advise against all travel to the north or east of Sri Lanka. If you are in the north or east, you should leave. For the purpose of this travel advice we consider the north to be all areas north of the A12 road (which runs from Puttalam in the west to Trincomalee in the east) including the Jaffna peninsula; and we consider the east to be the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, as well as coastal areas of Ampara district north of Pottuvil and east of the A25 and A27 roads."

The advisory also says there is 'continuing fighting between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE throughout the north and east' and that there is a 'high threat from terrorism in Sri Lanka and a risk of British nationals becoming indiscriminately caught up in attacks.' The website further states that terrorist attacks against government and civilian targets have taken place throughout the country, including in areas and on travel routes popular with tourists. Let's look at a comparison of the travel advisory issued for the United States, the subject of one of the largest terrorist attacks in the world in 2001 as well as the continued threat of attack the country faces. "The US Department of Homeland Security has lowered its terror alert status to ‘orange’ or high for all flights into the US that have originated from the UK. The terror alert level also remains at ‘orange’ for all other international and domestic flights in the US."
The website further states that most visits for around the 6.5 million British nationals who visit the US each year are 'trouble-free'. "The main types of incidents for which British nationals require consular assistance in the USA are for replacing lost or stolen passports, money and other documents, road accidents, and street-related and other crimes. The majority of cases occur in New York City; the tourist areas in Florida (principally Orlando and Miami ); and Los Angeles and San Francisco .

You should be alert to the dangers of car and street crime in cities." There are also warnings on the hurricane season in the US which usually runs from June to November and can affect the whole of the southern US. Thailand, another extremely popular global tourist destination which sees around 750,000 British tourists each year, has warnings on terrorism.

There are also advisories against all non-essential travel to the far south provinces of the country. There are warnings on the high threat of terrorism throughout the country and that 'attacks could be indiscriminate and against civilian targets in public places including places frequented by foreigners.' In addition, Thailand also has warnings on the outbreaks of Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) which the website says 'have resulted in a small number of human fatalities.'

The US State Department issues travel warnings through its website for certain countries. It says that 'travel warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid a certain country.' For Sri Lanka, the advisory 'alerts American citizens to the dangers posed by recent acts of terrorism throughout Sri Lanka and warns against travel to the most serious affected regions.'
The website does say that 'although there is no specific indication that American citizens or institutions are targets, there is a general risk of American citizens being victims of violence simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.'

"The areas in the North and East are of special concern. The Department of State warns U.S. citizens that travel to these areas and into any LTTE-controlled territory may pose severe hazards." The US travel warning further states that 'we have no indication at this time of a threat to tourist areas in the Cultural Triangle, including territory around Anaradhapura and Polonnoruwa.'
Advisories issued for British and American tourists to Sri Lanka do not outright ban travel to any areas in the country with the exception of the North and East. In light of this, SLTB Chairman De Alwis said that the SLTB is doing whatever it can to be postiive. "Since 1983, we have had a situation where we have had to operate within a framework of issues and we can bounce back. We always bounce back."

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.