Early on Easter morning, Resplendent Ceylon managing director Malik Fernando was set to leave his house for a business meeting when reports of a series of bombings in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo reached him.
Explosions at hotels and churches would claim the lives of more than 250 people, including 45 foreign nationals, and leave a country celebrating a decade since the end of a 26-year civil war, in shock.
Watching events unfold, Fernando spent hours contacting overseas partners. “It was a painful and tragic wake-up call, and I asked our partners not to give up on us,” he says.
“A lot of British visitors wanted to stay,” Fernando recalls.
Shiromal Cooray, chair of Jetwing Hotels, agrees. She says the ensuing days were “manageable” with “very few [customers]” choosing to leave.
But four days later, on 25 April, the British Foreign Office advised against “all but essential travel”, putting Sri Lanka out of reach for UK guests.
A “wave” of cancellations followed for Resplendent Ceylon, Fernando recalls. “The advice change really hit us hard. It was understandable, but it was a very despondent time.”
“Every Sri Lankan was suffering – from hotel owners to tuk-tuk drivers,” adds Cooray.
Frustrated by what he believes was a “slow” response to win back visitors by the state-run tourism authority, Fernando launched the private sector-backed Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance.
In just a few weeks, the group grew to more than 150 Sri Lankan and international tourism companies and bodies, including Jetwing.
The FCO’s advice was revised on 6 June, and through the alliance’s website, lovesrilanka.org, daily updates on improved security measures have appeared, with agents and operators able to receive a newsletter offering “a single point of credible information”.
The group is curating and sharing social media posts from travellers in the destination to tell “real, up-to-date stories” of life on the ground.
Fernando hopes to drive the consumer confidence in safety needed for the country’s tourism recovery.
“Confidence can come back quickly, especially as the British trade was so bullish with their support,” he smiles. “We just need clients to feel the same way.”
Regarding improved security, the alliance is lobbying the government to form “more joined-up” intelligence-gathering strategies for its anti-terrorism departments – steps Fernando believes are being taken.
Cooray advises agents wanting to support the destination to take advantage of “very attractive” airfares and hotel rates to entice customers back to Sri Lanka.
“It’s not too late to save the Christmas season,” says Fernando. “The day after the advice changed, it picked up. It will take a while to fill the order books, but we will get there together.”
A London travel agency took a £30,000, 17-night booking for a family as soon as the FCO’s travel advice for Sri Lanka was softened.
Nick Harding-McKay, director of TTG Top 50 Travel Agencies double winner Travel Designers, said: “They were ready to book, but when the ban came in, the trip was put on hold. As soon as the advice changed, they told us they still wanted to go and were ready to book. This just shows there is public confidence in Sri Lanka.”
Harding-McKay added a honeymoon couple had also resumed their Sri Lanka plans following the updated advice.
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