By Renishka Fernando   A trickle of tourists visited Sri Lanka in the first half of the year amid lingering concerns among those in the trade about the economic collapse. Despite the difficulties, some tourists have managed to travel around. Among them was Ms Petty, 49, from Luxembourg. She has marked her 10th visit to Sri [...]


Tourists endure challenges amid testing time for industry


By Renishka Fernando  

A trickle of tourists visited Sri Lanka in the first half of the year amid lingering concerns among those in the trade about the economic collapse.

Despite the difficulties, some tourists have managed to travel around. Among them was Ms Peggy, 49, from Luxembourg. She has marked her 10th visit to Sri Lanka.

“I came here to do my little part to support Sri Lanka and my friends here,” she said.

Empty hotel rooms as tourists stay away Pic by Nayanananda Buwaneka

Her best friend had arranged for a driver to pick her up from the airport to go to Mount Lavinia.

Ms Petty, who prefers to be identified by her first name, has travelled to Galle and Unawatuna without any inconvenience and had found transport when needed, which she attributes to luck. She plans to stay till August 2 and explore Ella.

“There is one thing I love about Sri Lanka, which I only realised after my friend told me. It is sharing which makes you feel cared for.”

According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), some 22,729 tourists from 136 countries have visited Sri Lanka for month of June.

Since 2019, the industry has been facing many challenges. Tourists in the country and those planning to visit spoke to the Sunday Times regarding their concerns.

Thirty-three-year-old Queensland nurse, Ms Miranda, who also prefers to be identified by her first name, arrived in Sri Lanka on Saturday.

“I would be lying if I said I am not worried,” she said.

She has been updating herself through local news, trip advisor forums and Facebook groups as she thinks that the international media does not portray the story accurately.

Ms Miranda said she had received mixed responses to her questions stating that there are just minor inconveniences, while others advised her not to visit at all. To ensure a smooth trip, she has booked a vehicle in advance and her driver had assured her that there is enough fuel for the first half of her trip from the airport – Sigiriya to Kandy and then Ella.

“My driver said we should be able to get more petrol on the way and skip the queue as I’m a tourist. If not, we get some fuel from the black market and pay more.” However, she added that on a more positive note, attractions are not as busy as before and that hotels are easier to book. But it simultaneously upsets her as it is income that locals desperately need.

“Every trip overseas has challenges and I guess that is the risk you take when you travel. Without risk there isn’t reward.”

Ms Miranda said that if she feels that the situation here is bad, she will visit the Maldives. She has also brought along the medicines she would need.

“While there are real problems at the moment, it is actually a good time to visit as the people are really welcoming. The only problem I have is queue jumping. How long will this last if tourists are allowed to jump queues,” were the thoughts of a 55-year-old teacher, Mr Mark Bibby.

Mr Matthias, 40, who is from Austria, works in the tourism industry and is planning to come to Sri Lanka by mid-July. He is concerned as to whether tourists will be ripped off.

In addition, Mr Matthias is also worried about reactions to tourists getting priority.

“My main concern is that tourists are treated as first class and Sri Lankans have to wait for food and fuel. This is not right. I do not understand how a country can be mismanaged.”

He emphasised that if the fuel situation does not improve by July 10, he will not be visiting Sri Lanka.

There were other instances where tourists, too, were in fuel queues, while in some instances the locals helped them to get fuel although there has been resistance at other instances.

“As an industry, we won’t allow tourists to experience any inconvenience. We are working hard to ensure that they have an enjoyable trip here,” said Mr M Shanthikumar, president of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL). However, problems are plentiful, including the fuel scarcity, unavailability of essential items, cash flow problems, low occupancy and higher operating costs.

The debt moratorium given to the industry also ended on June 30.

Businesses are struggling to service the loans and the cumulative interest. This has led to difficulties in paying worker salaries.

“We won’t be able to pay them in the coming months. There’s no working capital and this will result in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) shutting down.”

Mr Shanthikumar told the Sunday Times that about 80% of foreign exchange generated from tourism is retained in the country and reaches grassroots stakeholders such as kurumba vendors, tuk tuk drivers, fishmongers, and batik sellers.

“Authorities have failed to recognise the importance of the industry. There was a target of bringing in revenue of US$10 billion by 2025, however, there is no support for the survival and revival of the industry.” He added that businesses are doing their best to retain staff and pay salaries.

Mr Shanthikumar also noted that many skilled workers are emigrating.

Usually, employees earn Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 in service charges, but this had dropped to around Rs 5,000.

“Due to inflation, you need to double the salary you get. So, you can see the dilemma they are in.” Cancellations had been about 90%, but bookings for July and August have resumed.

“The problem of gas has been mitigated, but fuel remains a major problem to the industry,” said Mr Priantha Fernando, chairman of the SLTDA.

A system was introduced on June 28 to provide diesel and petrol to tourists with cooperation from the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB). Those who need petrol have to fill an online form that is available on the SLTDA website.

Their responses will be examined and depending on the priority, diesel will be provided from 12 SLTB depots island-wide, while petrol will be pumped at army camps. Applicants will be informed regarding the availability of fuel via email/WhatsApp.

“Discussions among industry players, finance companies and the Central Bank did not yield any results,” said Mr Fernando when asked about the moratorium being wound up. Financial institutions have decided to discuss each case on an individual basis as they cannot provide a blanket solution due to likely losses.

The SLTDA will be writing to the respective institutions on behalf of stakeholders who seek intervention.

“A good marketing campaign is essential in the long-term to bring in tourists to Sri Lanka,” said Mr Mahen Kariyawasam, past president of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO).

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