Specialist operators are confident the Foreign Office’s (FCO) swift decision to soften its Sri Lanka travel advice came just in time to protect dozens of key August bookings.
Sri Lanka is continuing to bounce back following the Easter Sunday bombings, visitor numbers are recovering after plummeting in May, and the government is incentivising airlines to return.
Ministers have agreed to cut aviation fuel prices and reduce ground handling and embarkation fees at Colombo airport for six months in an effort to entice carriers back to the country.
Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) says the measures should reduce operational costs for airlines by 20% to 25%.
Meanwhile, the FCO’s decision to revise its travel advice in early June, around six weeks after advising against all but essential travel, has been hailed by the UK travel trade.
“The early change of FCO advice protected a lot of August arrivals in Sri Lanka,” Sam Clark, co-founder of Sri Lanka specialist Experience Travel Group, told TTG. “This was very significant. Most operators were offering cancellations between a week and a month in advance and so were the insurance companies.
“So while June was a wipeout and a majority of July bookings were lost too, we did retain 50% of our bookings in August. I suspect this was par for the course. August is an extremely significant month now for tourist arrivals – particularly as many families visit Sri Lanka during the holidays.”
Following the 21 April bombings, which targeted hotels and churches, arrivals fell 71% year-on-year in May and 57% in June. Visitor numbers in the six months to July are down 13.5% to one million, while the government is projecting a 30% fall in visitor numbers this year.
However, arrivals increased 67% month-to-month from 37,802 in May to 63,072 in June after many countries lifted travel restrictions, including those imposed by the Foreign Office (FCO).
Clark added enquiries were now at the level Experience would expect for the time of year. “Our agent partners are all saying they’re seeing demand grow over the past week or two,” he said.
“Since the change, the pick-up of new enquiries has been steady, increasing each week. We found the news took a long time to filter out fully to the market. Almost all our clients found out about it when we emailed them. So far this month we have confirmed five bookings, which is probably about 50% of historical levels.
“However, new enquiries now are right up to where we would expect at this time of year. Our clients are very keen on visiting Sri Lanka both for the deals and to support the people of Sri Lanka.”
Asiya Zargur, marketing director at Indus Experiences, said bookings were still “really slow” compared to last year, but also stressed enquiries had picked up since the FCO changed its stance.
“Sri Lanka was all set for an exceptional year,” she said. “Positive communication has been key. Since the events, we’ve been keeping trade partners closely informed of in-country developments and giving them status reports and latest advice, and we’ve shared and celebrated the FCO decision to re-open Sri Lanka, and communicated to all that the tourist industry will be ready to welcome visitors.”
She added the operator had not sought to reclaim incentives earned by trade partners on cancelled bookings, and was making agents “fully aware” of offers and opportunities to add value on travel to Sri Lanka this year.
Robin Ball, director of Bamboo Travel, added: “We’ve received countless reports from contacts all over the island confirming life has very much returned to normal and they’re eagerly awaiting new arrivals.
“We genuinely believe that now is an opportune moment to visit Sri Lanka, as the hotels, national parks and cultural sights are much quieter than normal. Added to which the hotels and lodges are offering discounts and value-added incentives, making Sri Lanka fantastic value at this moment in time.”