News Features

Aerial attack on base hits tourism hardest
Industry upbeat as tourism takes a beating

Heavy lobbying to get travel advisories softened and operators to resume flights

By Dharisha Bastians
Sri Lanka’s faltering tourism industry has taken a severe beating from last week’s aerial bombing of the Katunayake Air Force Base and the Ministry of Tourism, tour operators and other industry players are being compelled to work overtime to put damage control measures in place.
When LTTE aircraft dropped gravity bombs on the Air Force base that is adjacent to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), the country’s only international airport was closed for about 3 hours, disrupting several flights, but no tourist was injured or hurt.
Within hours of the attack, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s national carrier suspended services to Colombo and the Dubai-based part shareholder of SriLankan Airlines, Emirates have decided to limit its flights to and from the BIA to the daytime only.
Connecting flights
The ensuing fallout for tour operators and travel agents have been tremendous over the last week, insiders say, with agents having to work frantically to secure seats on board flights out of Colombo that would enable passengers to make their connecting flights at other destinations. Airlines such as Qantas and British Airways which do not operate out of Colombo, depend on short haul carriers, Emirates, Sri Lankan, Cathay and Thai to ferry their passengers to airports both in the region and outside, from which their aircraft operate.
However, despite many fears to the contrary over the week, several other airlines which were expected to suspend or limit their flights to Sri Lanka following the attacks chose not to do so for the interim, leaving tourism officials to breathe a sigh of relief.
But tour operators are nervous that several countries have been added to the growing list of those issuing travel advisories warning their citizens and residents to avoid travelling to Sri Lanka except in unavoidable circumstances.
Speaking to The Nation, Chairman Tourist Board Renton De Alwis said that while there is always a fallout from this type of situation, this time, the impact has been bad, but not catastrophic.
More prepared
De Alwis who held the same position when the devastating Tiger suicide attack on the BIA took place in 2001, admitted that there was a greater degree of preparedness this time around, with officials and the Defence Ministry cooperating to ensure the crisis was smoothed over.
“I would say it was a far more professional job this time compared to 2001. The Ministry team worked round the clock, the Tourism Minister was quick to react, the President’s Secretary was available as were Defence Ministry officials. In that hour of need, everybody came together and that was heartening,” De Alwis said.
According to De Alwis by 2 a.m. on the night of the attack, the Ministry had set up an operations unit which was coordinating with the Defence Ministry and the Air Force. “By 3:30 the airport was reopened and we hastened to send out press releases to the international media confirming the reopening of BIA and that no tourists had been hurt in the attack,” he added.
In a move to further boost confidence, the Ministry had also issued a statement after having consulted with Defence Ministry officials about what steps were being taken to strengthen air defences and prevent any such attacks in the future.
Summer and winter tourists
The priority now, De Alwis says is to focus on the medium term goal of getting summer and winter tourists to the island.
Not forgetting, of course, the urgent need to combat the travel advisories that have been issued against Sri Lanka, which deter international tour operators from promoting Sri Lanka as a destination.
According to De Alwis, the Tourist Board is working to tackle the problem on two fronts. “We are approaching the diplomatic missions, and the decision is to be transparent about the impact and implications of the attack and ongoing military confrontations. On the other hand, there is a need to increase awareness that when tourism is affected, livelihoods are at stake. In order to seek peace, our economy has to be on a good footing and in this sense, the tourism industry has a role to play,” he said.
De Alwis says that the President of the French Travel Agents Association is in Colombo at present and has raised the issue of travel advisories with the French Ambassador.
Loss of revenue
According to the official, French travel agents have suffered a loss of revenue to the tune of some 10 million Euros.
De Alwis says, Sri Lanka has lost three times as much because of the same advisory warning the French people against travelling here.
“Since some tourists successfully sued a French travel agency recently over being abducted in Malaysia, French travel agents are wary of promoting destinations against which harsh advisories have been issued,” De Alwis opined. He said these were all negative factors that were affecting Sri Lanka’s tourist numbers. Germany and France are two of Sri Lanka’s top tourism generators and both countries have issued strongly worded advisories against travelling to the island.
“We need to find a way to get the tone of these advisories softened if we are to arrest this situation and to this end, we are working with diplomatic missions,” he added.
The tourism industry’s brave face notwithstanding, tourist arrivals have been hit in recent months with last Sunday’s attack set to exacerbate matters further.
Drop in tourist arrivals
Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka fell 18.3 percent to 52,687 in February from the same month a year earlier, official figures showed Sunday, with the key markets of India and Germany posting the steepest falls.
The drop came after Sri Lanka had already lowered its forecast for tourism arrivals by 20 percent to 543,877 for this year. Visitors from neighbouring India fell 29.9 percent to 7,350, despite hotels and the SriLankan Airlines rolling out discount packages aimed at the Indian market.
Travellers from European destinations also stayed away. Arrivals from Germany fell 22.1 percent to 4,068.
Following last Sunday’s attack, Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda travelled to several hotels in the island as a crisis control measure.
The industry has suffered major setbacks in the past and recovered phenomenally well under the circumstances. The fact that last Sunday’s LTTE target was not the international airport goes a long way to ease concern and lower the impact on potential travellers to Sri Lanka. The long-term fallout from the LTTE’s first aerial attack however remains to be seen and it can only be hoped that given the number of jobs at stake, the impact on the tourist industry will be minimal.