It was a yummy breakfast. Kussi Amma Sera had prepared a nice meal of boiled breadfruit (from the local vegetable vendor who comes down the lane), grated coconut and ‘katta sambol’. Adding a cup of black tea with jaggery, this was the ideal concoction to start the day. I could hear snatches of their conversation [...]

Business Times

Tourism: Bouncing back


It was a yummy breakfast. Kussi Amma Sera had prepared a nice meal of boiled breadfruit (from the local vegetable vendor who comes down the lane), grated coconut and ‘katta sambol’.

Adding a cup of black tea with jaggery, this was the ideal concoction to start the day.

I could hear snatches of their conversation from my office room window. The trio – Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu – had as usual, gathered outside the gate (keeping a safe one-metre distance among each other) and were having their breadfruit on banana leaves. Makes it tastier.

“Den waraka kale. Samahara idam-wala rasa waraka hariyata thiyenawa. (This is the season for ripe jak-fruit. Some gardens are filled with this tasty fruit),” said Serapina.

“Ape gas-wala amba pirila thiyenawa (It’s also the mango season and our trees are full of mangoes),” added Kussi Amma Sera. “Avasanavata, ehe-mehe geniyanna beri hinda, palathuru vagakaruvanta honda milak hambawena-ekak ne (Unfortunately, due to the disruption in transport, these fruit-growers may not get a good price),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu.

They were right. Vegetable and fruit growers in some areas were destroying their produce or giving it to animals as prices were very low. They were facing major problems in getting transport for their crops and also selling them during the curfew.

As I reflected on the dilemma that agri-food producers are facing these days, unable to get a reasonable price for their produce, the phone rang. It was ‘Seeni Bola’, my banker friend (so named by friends after he once boasted that other banks were handling ‘seeni bola’ deposits compared to his bank).

“Hello and hope you are safe and well,” he said.  “We are as comfortable as it can get during these troubled days,” I replied.

“I heard an interesting webinar (online discussion) on tourism and the path to recovery, which I thought would be interesting to discuss with you,” he said and went onto explain that tourism authorities have prepared a comprehensive plan which would be kick-started once COVID-19 is under control and Sri Lanka is back in business.

As he gave details of the discussion, I felt there would be a flood of Sri Lankans seeking to take a holiday and looking for the best options out of Colombo, once the dust settles on the pandemic. Resort hotels should be prepared for an influx of local holidaymakers desperate to get out of their homes, feel the fresh air and experience outside food after being locked up indoors for more than a month.

Under a set of new proposals to revive tourism in the country, tourists arriving in Sri Lanka in the future must be armed with WHO-approved health clearance certificates against COVID-19 and subject to rapid testing for the virus at the airport.

The visa process will also be changed and no on-arrival visas will be issued in future. Every visitor will have to have a WHO designated health test two weeks before arrival, while the government was considering the possibility of issuing 5-year visas like what happens in Dubai, to encourage visitors to return. Tourists must also book their accommodation in advance before arrival in the country. At the airport, a rapid health test will be carried out and they would be cleared, before being directed to the immigration counters. Hotels will also undergo certification, as being COVID-19 prepared, under new guidelines to be issued.

The tourism discussion, as explained by ‘Seeni Bola’, also revealed that Sri Lanka’s successful COVID-19 strategy, a mixture of a near-total countrywide lockdown for nearly a month and testing, would encourage travellers to visit Sri Lanka as a safe and healthy destination once tourism resumes across the world.

It was also noted that while the UNDP is helping with an impact assessment of the industry, Sri Lanka was creating new guidelines for hotels, borrowing from what has been implemented in Singapore. Financial support from the International Monetary Fund is also likely to support industry workers on a monthly wage of below Rs. 40,000, as earnings slump.

Vipula Gunatilleka, Group Chief Executive Officer at SriLankan Airlines, had commented that a worrying fact is that India, Sri Lanka’s biggest tourism source market, will take longer to recover while the positive signs are that domestic carriers in China have resumed operations and Korea and Japan are bouncing back. While stating that the national carrier will face severe competition from West Asian carriers and need to keep costs under control, Mr. Gunatilleka said that there are many outbound cargo flights and special flights, particularly bringing back Sri Lankans stranded in other countries.

As we discussed this information, one point that struck me was the view by Hotels’ Association President Sanath Ukwatte (during the webinar) that it was not ‘all gloom and doom’ and that an industry that has suffered in the past from a raging terrorist war, floods and dengue infections, would rise again and be strong and resilient.

The general view is that tourism will bounce back in 12 to 18 months, while some are of the view that it could be as early as the winter season in December.

In trying circumstances, tourism is a good barometer of a country’s recovery from a difficult period. Similar to what has been evident in Sri Lanka’s roller-coaster economy, hit by a 30-year ethnic conflict and other setbacks, tourism has been the first to bounce back and is a signal for the recovery of other sectors as well. In fact, tourism was recovering from the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks when it was hit by the new coronavirus.

In the present case, however, the situation is markedly different. Earlier, when Sri Lanka faced a problem, many people were prepared to visit the country but were deterred by the constraints (war, floods or dengue).

Today, the whole world is affected and travellers to Sri Lanka make up just a fraction of the numbers going on holiday. Would-be travellers would also face a spending crisis with little or no disposable income for a holiday as many lose their jobs, get laid off or suffer crippling pay-cuts.

In this scenario, however, the wealthy ones of the world would still have set aside a sizable sum for travel and will look for countries that are declared safe from the COVID-19 pandemic and other health concerns. This is where Sri Lanka can emerge as a safe and hospitable destination offering a string of luxury hotels and high-class accommodation options, and an assortment of places to visit during a two-week holiday.

As I wind up my column with tourism ringing in my ears, Kussi Amma Sera brings in another serving of breadfruit on a banana leaf and a cup of tea with jaggery, saying “Api than mulu masayak ge-athule hitiya (we have been indoors for a whole month)”. I nodded my head in agreement, hoping that the lockdown which seems to be working with fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to other countries, will be relaxed only after health authorities give the go-ahead and not due to other considerations like holding an election for example.


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