Aerial attack on base hits tourism
Industry upbeat as tourism takes a
Heavy lobbying to get travel
advisories softened and operators to resume flights
By Dharisha Bastians
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.