The UK travel trade has rushed to respond to the Foreign Office (FCO) issuing a travel advisory warning against all but essential travel to the country.
The move follows the Easter Sunday (21 April) terror attacks which targeted hotels and churches in and around capital Colombo and claimed more than 250 lives, including eight Britons.
The FCO’s decision left hundreds of agents and operators scrambling to make alternative arrangements for clients in the country, and those with forward bookings.
It also came hours after the south-east Asian country put the launch of its visa on arrival programme on hold “in response to security concerns”.
The scheme was due to be rolled out this week allowing citizens from 39 countries, including the UK, to receive free visas on arrival in the country between 1 May and 1 October 2019.
Minister of tourism John Amaratunga said: “Investigations have revealed foreign links to the attacks, and we don’t want this facility to be abused,” he said.
The FCO said in a statement its decision was informed by the “evolving security situation” in Sri Lanka following attacks. “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners,” said the FCO.
The CAA said airlines typically adhere to FCO guidance and offer passengers “flexibility” such as changes to their travel plans or refunds. Passengers may also be able to claim if they have sufficient travel insurance.
G Adventures said all departures to Sri Lanka had been cancelled up to 30 April. Travellers booked beyond this date wishing to postpone their tour can do so for free.
Kuoni said it was contacting customers in resort and those due to travel in the coming weeks. “Our local staff will be making contact with those currently in resort to discuss options to return to the UK and we will be making contact with all customers due to travel to Sri Lanka within the next four weeks to discuss options to amend their travel plans,” said the operator.
Kuoni Sri Lanka update: As a result of the new FCO advice, we are in the process of contacting customers in resort and those due to travel before 21 May 2019 to discuss options to amend travel arrangements. The safety of our customers is paramount.— Kuoni Agents (@KuoniAgents) April 26, 2019
“We are monitoring the situation closely alongside our team in Sri Lanka, Abta and the FCO,” it added.
A Premier Holidays spokesperson said: “Our policy is to always follow the advice of the FCO. As such, we are contacting customers who are due to travel to Sri Lanka imminently in date order to either find them an alternative destination within our extensive portfolio, or offer a full refund.
“We are reviewing our policy for bookings that are further away, by which time the airlines will have updated their own policies.”
Shortly before the FCO updated its guidance, a collection of Aito specialist operators vowed not to let terrorism put Sri Lanka off the tourism map and pledged to support the country and its tourism industry in any way possible.
Spokesperson Sam Clark of Experience Travel Group said: “We undertake to continue doing everything we can to support our colleagues and friends, as well as the wider travel and tourism sector in Sri Lanka, in the days, weeks and months ahead.
“The travel industry is a vital part of the economy of Sri Lanka and delivers employment to a wide range of socio-economic groups and an equally diverse age range of people. Full employment and the opportunity for visitors to meet local people of all backgrounds (and vice versa) are, we believe, key to deeper understanding on both sides and to creating positive and enduring holiday memories and friendships.”
Earlier in the week, the Sri Lanka Tourism Ministry revealed hotel owners and operators had been briefed on new security measures in a bid to tighten security at hotels and resorts.
A spokesperson later told TTG it was “more about putting to use the soft skills of employees than deployment of actual hardware such as metal detectors”.
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It may be just 10 years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war but in that time the country’s tourism industry has rocketed. In 2018, visitor numbers reached two million, and the country hoped to double this by 2020. Last week’s horrific attacks, and the FCO’s new advisory notice, will likely deal a serious blow to such ambitions. Whenever the FCO’s warning is lifted, the travel trade will have an integral role to play in reassuring customers nervous about travelling. But it is crucial first that Sri Lanka continues to improve security measures – and keeps hoteliers and operators fully informed of any developments.