Tourism renewal: September sets the tone with backpacker visitors | Print edition

By Tharushi Weerasinghe

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President of SLTDA Kimarli Fernando

Sri Lanka’s tourism sector breathes a sigh of relief as the ongoing vaccination campaign and the removal of local and international travel restrictions once again attract a trickle of visitors.

Some residents are also on the move looking for a break from the boredom of the lockdown.

“We are fully booked at the moment! Said Fred Netzband-Miller, an Arugam Bay hotelier.

The promise of a long weekend has led to a wave of Sri Lankans making reservations and traveling to beautiful destinations, despite interprovincial travel restrictions.

While 20% of the tourism industry depended on domestic tourism, off-season travelers are a lifeline for the industry.

As Sri Lanka has been removed from most of the world’s travel “red lists”, more and more tourists are arriving and the recommendations are useful.

Sri Lanka was named one of the “5 Best Countries to Travel” in the 2021 Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards.

“We see a big recovery on the horizon,” said Sanath Ukwate, president of the Sri Lanka Hotels Association, adding that flights from new airlines, such as Air France, were also a promising sign. Talks have started for a British Airways flight to Colombo.

He noted that airline bookings to Sri Lanka, especially from France and Germany, are on the rise.

The industry has set a target of $ 500 million (1.7 billion rupees) in revenue for the fiscal year ending March 2022, based on winter season tourists expected between December and April. . This still marks a sharp drop in revenue compared to the pre-Covid-19 years. The industry raked in US $ 4.5 billion in 2018 and US $ 3.2 billion in 2019, even after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on churches.

“The industry is fully vaccinated, with the exception of the occasional and extremely rare anti-vaccine, which has also been a major asset for our renaissance,” said Mr Ukwate.

However, more than two years of closures have taken their toll. Staffing is now an issue.

According to Mr Ukwate, around 15% of workers in the industry, including chefs and restaurant managers, have emigrated.

“We now have a need to recruit around 15,000 people. Sadly, those who have left are those with years of experience in the hospitality industry, which is sometimes impossible to replace. But, the training of workers has started.

Apart from that, the hotels that had been closed are in need of refurbishment. Maintenance was a luxury many hoteliers could not afford during its drought.

A five star hotel, for example, should now spend around Rs. 1 million per room while a three star hotel should spend at least Rs 100,000 per room. Costs include things like repaint, air conditioning, carpeting, upholstery, and bedding.

“The costs of beachfront properties are even higher due to corrosion,” said Ukwate.

He noted that the current plan was to prepare for 50% occupancy, meaning renovations would be made to accommodate 50% of each hotel’s capacity.

Profits will be reinvested to renovate the rest of a hotel.

Reinvestment is vital. “Quality is not something we can compromise on,” Mr Ukwate insisted.

Tourism authorities are studying loan restructuring to help ease the debt burden.

“We are in talks with the Central Bank and other finance players to discuss restructuring lending for the hotel industry,” said Kimarli Fernando, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA). “The industry has had a refurbishment requirement for a few years now. “

In runoff: tourists in Ella (above) and Colombo (right). Pix by Palitha Ariyawansa and Eshan Fernando

Where possible, even full loan absolution is considered.

She believes that the moratoriums, while useful, are insufficient.

SLTDA is also in talks with two international funding agencies to refinance tourism in Sri Lanka.

However, where possible, SLTDA grants concessions on utility payments and records, she said.

While noting that tourism rebranding and repositioning campaigns in Sri Lanka have been launched, Ms. Fernando added that SLTDA is coordinating with other government agencies to facilitate the arrival of a tourist in Sri Lanka.

“The airport experience, for example, needs to be improved,” said Fernando.

SLTDA helps other institutions speed up processes like visas.

“It’s relatively easy now, because any vaccinated tourist only has to bring a negative PCR test report, but there is room to improve the airport experience for our customers,” she said. note. “We are progressing slowly but surely and September has been our best month yet.”

September arrivals were the highest this year since airports reopened in January, according to SLTDA data. In January, there were 1,682 tourists, while 13,547 came in September. Arrivals between October 1 and October 13 alone amounted to 7,096.

Vajira, a 37-year-old tourist guide who the Sunday Times spoke, noted that the current flock of tourists is backpackers.

“But it’s also good because they are often the first sign we have that tourists are venturing down this path again,” he noted. “The groups are not coming yet, but we are seeing an increase in the number of tourists which is constant and encouraging,” he said.

Daring visitors venture

Vajira guides cultural tours and therefore noted that this business had not yet resumed.

Some destinations are deserted.

“Pidurangala is usually a bottleneck with tourists every time I go there, but on my last visit I was the only person there,” Vajira said. He noted that Sigiriya had attracted a few more visitors.

“The hospitality has been amazing! said Linda Van de Walle, a Belgian tourist traveling with her children. She came to Sri Lanka in the second week of September and had to travel in lockdown, but noted that she only had to spend one day in quarantine at a level one hotel.

“I think Sri Lanka does a great job with the immunization program and when I compare it to all of my trips Sri Lanka is ahead which is obviously very beneficial for the international tourism market as well.” She confirmed that fully vaccinated tourists could travel with minimal restrictions and argued that the protocols made Sri Lanka feel more secure.

“I like to tell people that we have opened up the country! she said while adding that watching a sunrise from Pidurangala and watching the rituals of the temple of the relic alone had been a whole new experience. She had been able to complete all of the planned activities except for a trip to the town of Galle which did not involve church visits as they were closed. “I really like the wildlife, the national heritage and things like the Stupas here – and the street food like kottu and egg hoppers are amazing.”

While some shops were closed during the lockdown, Linda and her children dined with locals when take out was not available.

While she had expected animosity over travel restrictions imposed on locals but not tourists, she felt people had been welcoming.

“I actually felt safer in Sri Lanka than in Belgium because everyone here wore masks very diligently,” she said.

The lack of public transport has probably been difficult for backpackers, but she believes winter abroad is promising for the island. “Sri Lanka deserves it!

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