A year on from the fatal Easter Sunday attacks, Sri Lanka is now grappling with the impact of coronavirus, yet it still remains hopeful. James Chapple reports
It was a little before 8.30am when the first blast rang out in Colombo; it was to be the first of several devastating suicide bombings targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday last year (21 April), which eventually claimed 269 lives.
A year later, and the country this year awoke to the sound of church bells, temple chimes and calls to prayer before all fell silent in a moment of national mourning. For a country familiar with adversity, the attacks came as no less of a shock. But through adversity comes resilience.
“We were all hopeful this year was the beginning of a new, positive chapter,” said Thushni de Silva, Sri Lanka manager at Asia specialist Experience Travel Group. However, just as Easter Sunday was observed last year under a state of police curfew, so was it to be in 2020.
Coronavirus has come as a sickening second punch in what Malik Fernando, owner of luxury resort operator Resplendent Ceylon, described to TTG as a cruel “double blow” for the country and its tourism sector, which de Silva said supports about 1.2 million jobs – 6% of the population. Fernando believes it could be even more, with around 17% of Sri Lanka’s people reliant on income from the country’s travel and tourism sector.
Following the attacks, bookings picked up, according to Fernando, while annual visitor numbers eventually came in only 18% down on 2018 – a record year for tourism to Sri Lanka with 2.3 million visitors. The country made a strong start to 2020 too, with January arrivals falling just 6.5% short of where they were 12 months ago.
Elected last November, Fernando said new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emphasis on national security had provided the “essential stability” the country’s tourism sector needed.
“Sri Lankans were upbeat,” said Fernando. “We had a decent winter season from December to mid-March; everyone was thinking, ‘we’re back in business’. So it was really concerning when the pandemic hit, particularly
as we felt the country was just bouncing back.”
De Silva agreed: “While most of the road blocks and check points have been removed, security levels remain high at many of the bigger hotels and around the country in general. We have accepted this is the new normal, and feel safer for it.”
Fernando also praised the government for its “firm and early action” on coronavirus; measures included a nationwide curfew, shutting down the country’s only international airport (Colombo), and aggressive contact tracing and quarantine.
Nonetheless, he expects the impact of the pandemic to be significantly worse than the “one-off” Easter Sunday attacks. Safe air travel protocols, accurate rapid tests and a vaccine will be key, he said.
“Hotels are rolling out safety protocols to protect travellers and staff when tourism resumes. The airport continues to be shut; its opening will depend on adequate safeguards to prevent importation of the virus. Our three resorts are closed with staff at home on fully paid leave. There’s no furlough here. I’m hopeful we might see the first buds of tourism in August, or December.”
For both Fernando and de Silva, it is resilience that characterises Sri Lankans.
“To be hit so hard, two years in a row, is a blow hard to bear,” said de Silva. “The past year has been a rollercoaster; in true Sri Lankan style, we shed our grievances and faced winter cheery and hopeful for the future while realistically understanding it wouldn’t be the same. Everyone had high hopes, but little did we know.”
Fernando casts a more optimistic tone. “Despite the double blow, we’ll keep smiling and look forward to welcoming tourists back,” he said. “This crisis has highlighted the need to treat our planet and fellow travellers with greater consideration.
“With Sri Lanka’s warm hospitality, pristine nature, and the key role family businesses and small entrepreneurs play in our tourism ecosystem, the country is well placed to thrive in the post- pandemic era.”