Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is pulling together following a series of near-simultaneous suicide bomb attacks over the Easter weekend that killed more than 321 people and left hundreds more injured. The attacks came on Easter Sunday starting around 8:30am local time, deliberately targeting breakfast buffets at five-star hotels as well as church services.
This led to concerns for the future of the country’s tourism industry, which has grown steadily since the end of the civil war in 2009 and was expected to welcome 2.5 million international visitors this year. The country’s burgeoning MICE sector has also been a success story for the region.
In Colombo, three hotels were part of the attacks: the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and The Kingsbury. A foiled attack on a fourth, unnamed hotel has also been reported.
According to sources at the hotels, Shangri-La and The Kingsbury have organised alternative accommodation for their guests and remain closed until further notice. The Cinnamon Grand has remained open to those with prior reservations, and today resumed taking new reservations.
Dileep Mudadeniya, vice president, brand marketing at Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts, CEO of Cinnamon Life Mall, and founder of the Centre of Research & Sustainable Studies in Tourism, told CEI that the Cinnamon Grand Hotel is now fully operational to in-house guests.
“With the police curfew in force from 8pm to 4am overnight, we don’t entertain outside guests yet, but when that is lifted we are ready to fully operate – most probably Friday or Saturday. We have cordoned off the area at the restaurant on the lower level where the attack took place and expect to reopen it possibly from Thursday.”
Mudadeniya says all of the group’s hotels have additional security precautions in place, and that more permanent changes to security processes are something the country is considering as a whole.
“The security has to be looked at from a holistic viewpoint,” he says. “There was a meeting on Monday between Sri Lanka Tourism and its stakeholders briefing us on how they intend to tackle this situation. We have a State of Emergency declared and a national security plan in place, within that hotels will adopt best practices to ensure security within the hotels.
“In addition, the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) met yesterday afternoon to discuss what needs to be done in the short-term to ensure the safety of visitors who are leaving the country and the comfort of the people who are staying on or arriving within the next 10 days.”
India is the largest source market for international tourists to Sri Lanka, followed by the UK and China.
Mudadeniya says the hotel group is seeing some cancellations from current guests and those with plans to arrive in the next few days, but that others are keeping their bookings.
“There’s a very big conference with 3,000 delegates expected from May 23 to June 3, the CITES World Wildlife Conference,” he says. “They want to remain and we will do our utmost to ensure this conference is held in Sri Lanka without an issue.”
Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings told CEI the travel group has seen a mixed response from its clients.
“Our clients who are in Sri Lanka are continuing with their tour and many of them are scheduled to return either today or in a couple of days at the end of their tour,” he said. “The Sri Lankan hotels and ground handlers are very supportive and they have ensured that customers feel safe.”
However, its clients with upcoming bookings in the short-term are postponing and cancelling – as is to be expected.
“In the short term, we see cancellation and postponement of the tours,” he said. “This is the immediate reaction as travellers are unsure of what to expect in the next few days or weeks. Colombo is the only gateway to Sri Lanka and travellers cannot avoid it. However, it must be noted that the terror attacks happened outside Colombo as well. In the medium term, it is a wait-and-watch situation.”
MICE expected to recover
Philip Eidsvold, president of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE) and VP, strategic alliances at One10, told CEI that he expects Sri Lanka’s role as an up-and-coming incentive destination to recover.
“Sri Lanka has been growing strongly in popularity as an incentive travel destination for incentives originating in Asia and Australia, but also from the EU where the appeal of an exotic island with deserted beaches and stunning sunsets will never abate,” he said. “Add in priceless UNESCO heritage sites, a pulsating capital city and beautiful, gentle people and you have all the ingredients for a world-class incentive travel experience.
“There is always a reaction from both leisure tourists and organisers of business events when a destination is visited by acts of unspeakable atrocity like we witnessed in Sri Lanka this Easter. However, it’s also true to say that recovery time has contracted significantly as international travellers and corporate decision makers have better and more sophisticated tools for evaluating risk.”
Sri Lanka has also been building its name as a destination for international association meetings. The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), which focuses on this segment, has seen Sri Lanka climb its annual rankings over the past decade. For 2017, it took 16th place in the country rankings with 19 international association meetings. According to iccaworld.org, this is up from just four in 2008, with a peak to date of 27 in 2014.
Sylvia Andre, VP, marketing and communications at MCI Group, said the group is not experiencing any direct impact as its business in Asia Pacific is typically large-scale meetings and conferences that may only be beginning to consider Sri Lanka. However, she does not anticipate the attacks will deter large groups in future.
“Sri Lanka is a relatively new destination for the MICE industry,” she says. “In the past two years there has been foreign investment creating MICE facilities to encourage big conferences.
“We have noted in similar situations the great impact on the destination in the short-term timeframe around when an attack of this nature happens. In the long-term timeframe the attacks will not influence the industry.”
“Everyone was taken by surprise as Sri Lanka is a peaceful destination,” said Cox & Kings’ Anand. “At the moment, the industry is grappling with cancellations and we believe that it’s up to the government to restore confidence. The Sri Lankan government has been very proactive and has assured the industry of its support.”
Nimal Gunewardena, founder of Bates Strategic Alliance and NGage Goodvocacy, and a frequent collaborator with Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, says there are two areas where he would like to see better professional PR skills and resources applied.
“Foremost, is crisis communications and recovery. Basic principles of providing a central information resource for foreign media, designated and trained spokespeople, and the political leadership acting and speaking with one voice is the need of the hour, when all eyes are focused on Sri Lanka, and foreign journalists are seeking their sound bites.
“Firm and speedy action to arrest the situation and perpetrators, maintain steady information updates, and bring reassurance and visible normalcy to citizens and tourists alike is vital. Hopefully the matters will be brought under control and the curfew and social media blockade will be lifted as a sign of this. Keeping tourists safe, cared for, entertained and advocating a positive perspective is key.”
Long term, Gunewardena sees the key need as rebuilding confidence in the destination, both for tourism and investment.
“Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has traditionally looked to pithy slogans and ad campaigns to do the magic,” he said. “Destination brand recovery requires an effort to build confidence and reassure visitors that significant measures have been enacted on-ground to ensure the safety of tourists, both from day-to-day travails and risk factors. This requires reputation and perception management expertise to precede any ad campaigns.”
SITE president Eidsvold would also like to see Sri Lanka continue to promote itself as a destination despite the recent incidents.
“Sometimes destinations that have suffered attacks like this withdraw from the global market in the belief that it’s futile trying to promote the location following such incidents,” he said. “However, Sri Lanka must immediately re-double its efforts to connect with the international MICE community and tell its compelling story of recovery and regeneration. The last thing that Sri Lanka should do is to cut back on marketing and promotion. As a business events community we rally around, we help each other.
“At SITE we’re with Mark Twain who famously said “travel is the enemy of bigotry”. We believe in the transformational power of travel to build tolerance, mutual understanding and acceptance. We must NOT allow the actions of extremists and enemies of peace to generate fear in our hearts and minds.”