Policy perspectives for sustainable tourism under COVID-19 in Sri Lanka

By Prof Utpal Kumar De*, Dr Simi Mehta**

Tourism, the third-largest export sector in the global economy, is severely affected due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and has returned to the stage of at least two decades back. From January to October 2020, the revenue from international tourism recorded a loss of US$ 935 billion, which is ten times larger than the loss of the global economic crisis in 2008. As per the estimate of UNWTO, the global GDP is expected to contract in the range of 1.5% to 2.8% due to this pandemic affecting people’s livelihood engaged in tourism-related activities across the countries with an overall approximate global GDP loss of 2 trillion USD. One out of ten people in the world depends on the tourism industry directly or indirectly. The estimated direct job loss ranges between 100 and 120 million for the decline of international tourists’ arrival, which is expected to reduce by 70% to 75%.

In Sri Lanka, tourism is the 3rd largest foreign exchange earner with about 84 billion USD after foreign remittance and the textile industry. The sector contributes approximately 5% of the national GDP and 11% of its total employment. Despite numerous natural and cultural attractions, its international tourism got a severe setback for the Easter Sunday Attack in 2019 and was followed by the COVID 19. Like other countries, Sri Lanka also suspended international tourist arrivals on March 18, 2020. The country’s top five source markets – India, United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France, have been severely affected by the pandemic.

There has been a rapid reduction in foreign tourists visiting Sri Lanka in 2020 in comparison to 2019. Sri Lanka’s government has taken a few steps to prevent the skilled workforce from moving out of the vulnerable tourism sector to other industries. Some prominent measures are offer of cash grants, tax relief, support for loan repayment, relaxation of rules, waiver of the license fee for businesses, retraining tourism workers to support the health crisis, and extending visa period of foreign employees and tourists stranded in Sri Lanka due to port closure.

Changing prospects

Since tourism essentially involves human interaction and movement, the COVID 19 outbreak has a significant impact on tourists’ travel behavior and interests. The world is now moving to a new normal situation to rejuvenate tourism with new dimensions. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) emphasizes health, safety, and hygiene as prime concerns for the tourists in the new normal situation. The hospitality and transport sector like hotels, restaurants, travel agents, DMC’s, MICE operators, airlines, cruise lines are required to ensure safety, security and hygiene by implementing such strategies in their operations to attract tourists, which has been supported by a survey outcome of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) involving more than 1200 tourists. For this purpose, tourists would pay a premium to the service providers who ensure safety during their tours. WTO and other governing authorities have also set new protocols to be followed. Therefore, tourism service providers are obliged to extend facilities to tourists such as mandatory room and public area disinfection, hand sanitizers, proper ventilation, and effective screening and crisis communication procedures.

Sustainability

According to WTO, sustainability should no longer be a niche part of tourism but must be the new norm for every aspect of tourism. At the COVID 19 recovery stage, the governments and other relevant authorities should consider introducing new economic, socially, and environmentally sustainable tourism models. WTO’s The One Planet Sustainable Tourism Program, Hilton’s Travel with Purpose Program, Programs of Tourism Cares, Impact Travel Alliance are few examples of how the world is embarking on sustainably restarting tourism. The entire sector, including tourism service providers, travelers, local communities, and regulatory bodies, should make an extra and conscious effort to learn their roles in new sustainable tourism models. Tourism stakeholders can ensure sustainability through health and safety protocols, supporting local communities, protecting culture and heritage, educating travelers on sustainable behaviors, and preserving the natural environment.

Avoiding crowd

The demand for Mass Tourism, where many tourists travel together to popular destinations, would not be the same in this new normal era. At the initial recovery stage, potential tourists may tend to travel in smaller groups avoiding crowded destinations. Traveling with family members or close friends using private guides, drivers, and vehicles will give them a sense of confidence and security. Also, it gives the travelers the benefit of last-minute amendments or cancellations by the service providers quickly than for larger travel groups. Providing free cancellations and flexible presale bookings to tourists may be on the card in this uncertain condition generated by one of the devastating pandemics in modern history. The airline sector would experience an increased demand for direct connectivity to destinations to ensure minimum contact and lower transmission possibility.

Slow and Domestic Tourism

Slow Tourism, where tourists stay in one destination for a long time; exploring local people and their culture would be of new trend in the post COVID era. In this way, travelers interact with a smaller number of people yet experience a lot deeply during their tour without feeling overwhelmed by restrictions and fear. The concepts such as community-based tourism, rural tourism, and home stay tourism have a significant role in slow tourism, highlighting quality over quantity while encouraging many sustainable tourism practices. But several tourists who want to visit several destinations with limited resources and time would disagree with this concept. Small scale, local tourism service providers play a vital role, and their livelihood would be well-shaped in slow tourism.

In this uncertain situation of international travel restrictions in several countries, high tourism-dependent economies ought to promote domestic tourism at least for initial recovery. Promoting domestic tourism and the gradual lifting of lockdowns can motivate the eagerly waiting long-time home locked people to travel around. Malaysia has already allocated 113 million USD travel discount vouchers and personal tax relief of up to 227 USD for encouraging domestic tourism. Costa Rica has moved all their holidays of 2020 and 2021 into Mondays to enjoy long weekends on domestic travel. Several other countries also started the ball rolling in favor of domestic tourism revival. However, there is a suspicion on how far it can compensate the loss of international tourism in the high tourism-dependent countries.

Technology and Crowd Management

The use of appropriate technology has become essential in post-COVID 19 situations to prevent contamination, especially in contactless transactions. Invoking new technological solutions, concern for security in digital services and identity protections has also increased among travelers. Digital assistance with human interfaces such as self-check-in and check-out, contactless payment methods, mobile apps, mobile room keys, robotic maids, in-room technologies for entertainment, and e-shopping would increase the comfort and confidence of travelers in post COVID era. Though some people suggest a virtual tour, it would not provide satisfaction like direct physical observation.

Tourism regulatory bodies in Sri Lanka would follow control measures on overcrowding in destination sites. Smart Tourism with ICT may help screen, monitor travelers’ movement and crowd management in a tourism destination. Mandatory implementation of new policies and strategies by any government, authority, and service provider may reinvent the tourism sector in the years to come.

Remarks

The recovery of tourism in the post-pandemic situation is contingent upon the rebuilding of trust and confidence by protecting the travelers’ health concerns and other stakeholders of the tourism industry. For the purpose, the Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) government has taken some initiatives towards that direction. These include

  • Comprehensive operational guideline with health protocols,
  • Issue of COVID-19 safety compliance certificate to hotels by SLTDA,
  • Introduction of all-inclusive Sri Lanka Tourism App,
  • Coordination with the Ministry of Defense, and
  • Obtaining “Safe Travel” Stamp issued by WTTC.

Inter-regional cooperation and communication, especially with neighboring countries like India, Bangladesh for socio-cultural and historical linkages, may help revival and progress tourism. Understanding travelers’ new behavioral patterns and establishing travel corridors across neighbouring countries would help build a safe tourism zone in the region. The countries like Sri Lanka, highly dependent on international tourists from a few specific countries; the source markets would also benefit from travel bubbles. In addition to that, facilitating accessibility for international tourists in a phase manner can be considered by relaxing visa restrictions, improving communication infrastructure, aviation deregulation, and easing cross-border formalities. In addition to few significant source countries, Sri Lanka can explore other potential tourist sources.

*Department of Economics, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong; **CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI. This is an excerpt from the discussion on the ‘Changing tourism prospects under Covid-19 and policy options for sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka‘ delivered by Maheshika Dissanayake of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management, the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka on January 5, 2021in the online discussion series on State of Economic Development in South Asia of Impact Policy Research Institute, New Delhi

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