Changing tourism prospects during Covid-19: Policy options for sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka

By Maheshika Dissanayake*

As the third-largest export sector globally, the tourism industry is severely affected by the unprecedented COVID 19 pandemic. From January to October in 2020, according to UNWTO, loss in the export revenue from the international tourism sector was recorded at US$ 935 billion, which is ten times larger than the loss of the global economic crisis in 2009. Expectantly, it will reduce global GDP by 1.5% to 2.8%, affecting both developed and developing countries’ economies and livelihoods. Global GDP would incur an economic loss of US$ 2 trillion. One out of ten people worldwide depend on the tourism industry directly or indirectly, thus exposing 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs to risk due to the decline of international tourists’ arrival by 70% to 75%. Consequently, UNWTO predicts that the tourism industry will bounce back to its 1990s level.

Sri Lanka, an island blessed with numerous natural and cultural attractions, was still boosting its international tourism after the Easter Sunday Attack tragedy when the COVID 19 started spreading rapidly worldwide. The country’s economy is US$ 84 billion, and tourism is the third-largest foreign contributes approximately 5% to the national GDP and generate 11% of total employment.

Sri Lanka suspended international tourist arrivals from all countries on 18th March 2020 due to COVID-19 from its source markets- India, United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France. The following graph reveals international arrivals’ movement to Sri Lanka in 2019 and 2020 until the country’s border shutdown.

Sri Lankan government has taken few initiatives to prevent moving the skilled workforce from the vulnerable tourism sector to stable other industries. Initiatives include – offering cash grants, tax relief/extensions, loans/loan repayment support, rules alleviation, license fee waivers for businesses, retraining tourism workers to support the health crisis, and extending the visa period of foreign employees and tourists stranded in Sri Lanka due to port closure are few among them.

Changing tourism prospects

Since the tourism essentially involves human interaction and movement, the COVID 19 outbreak has significant impact on travel behavior and interests of tourists. The world is now moving to the new normal situation, and tourism has also rejuvenated with many prospects. Therefore, these recent trends and prospects, discussed below, should be considered when planning and implementing new policies and strategies by relevant regulatory bodies and tourism service providers.

Prime focus on health, safety, and hygiene:

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) emphasizes that health, safety, and hygiene will be of prime concern of the tourists in new normal situation. Tourism suppliers such as hotels, restaurants, travel agents, DMC’s, MICE operators, airlines, cruise lines, and other transport service providers should implement many strategies to ensure the safety, security, and hygiene of their operations to lure tourists. Additionally, tourists in new normal era will pay a premium price to the service providers who ensure safety during their tours. On the other hand, WTO and other governing authorities have set new protocols to be followed and therefore, tourism service providers are obliged to provide necessary facilities to tourists such as mandatory room and public area disinfections, provision of hand sanitizers, maintain proper ventilation, and effective screening and crisis communication procedures etc.

Sustainability as the New Normal:

According to WTO, sustainability 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 support and ensure sustainability through abiding by health and safety protocols, supporting local communities, protecting culture and heritage, educating travelers on sustainable behaviors, preserving the natural environment, and many more.

Travel in small groups avoiding crowded places:

The demand for mass tourism will not be the same in this new normal era. In the initial recovery stage, the potential tourists may travel in smaller groups to avoid crowded destinations. Traveling with family members or close friends using private guides, drivers, and vehicles will give them a sense of confidence and security. On the other hand, 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 is paramount in this uncertain condition after experiencing the biggest pandemic in modern history. Further, the airline sector will experience an increased demand for direct flights or direct connectivity to destinations over transit flights to ensure minimum contact and lower transmission possibility.

Role of slow tourism:

Slow Tourism where tourists stay in one destination for a long time; will be of new trend in the post COVID era. In such tourism, travelers interact with fewer people without feeling overwhelmed by restrictions and fear. The concepts such as community-based tourism, rural tourism, and homestay tourism have a significant role in slow tourism, highlighting quality over quantity while encouraging sustainable tourism practices.

Technology will be an essential, not an optional

Technology is essential for every traveler to enabe contactless solutions. Along with the new technological solutions, security concerns in digital services and identity protections have also been increased among travelers. The digital assistance with human interfaces such as self-check-in and check-out, contactless paying methods, mobile apps, mobile room keys, robotic maids, in-room technologies for entertainment and e-shopping, and virtual tours etc. will increase the comfort and confidence of travelers in post COVID era.

Thriving through Domestic Tourism

Due to international travel restrictions still prevailing, the bounce-back of international tourism is not in sight. The countries with high tourism dependent economies have commenced promoting domestic tourism to lead the recovery of their tourism sectors. Introducing domestic tourism promotional campaigns, loosen restrictions, and gradually lifting lockdowns are motivating people to travel again. According to WTO, Malaysia allocated US$ 113 million worth of travel discount vouchers and personal tax relief of up to US$ 227 for encouraging domestic tourism. Costa Rica has moved all their holidays of 2020 and 2021 into Mondays to enjoy long weekends to travel domestically. France also have launched a campaign called #CetÉtéJeVisiteLaFrance (‘This Summer, I visit France’) highlighting diverse destinations across France. However, highly tourism dependant countries may not be able to fill the gap by domestic tourism.

Crowd Management

Health and safety being the biggest concern for travelers in new normal situation, tourism regulatory bodies will incorporate many measures to avoid overcrowding. Smart Tourism, which involves information and communication technology, will significantly benefit crowd control, screening, and crowd management in tourism destinations. Further, it will monitor and trace travelers’ movement.

Recovery and resilience

At the recovery stage, numerous actions are to be put in place to ensure the destinations are safe to travel. Rebuilding consumer trust and confidence is paramount to protect not only the travelers but also all the stakeholders in the tourism industry. To reassure the trust and confidence of travelers, Sri Lankan government; Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) has taken many initiatives listed below.

  • Introducing a comprehensive operational guideline with health protocols 
  • Issuing COVID-19 safety compliance certification for hotels by SLTDA
  • Introducing All-inclusive Sri Lanka Tourism App
  • Working closely with the Ministry of Defense
  • Obtaining “Safe Travel” Stamp issue by World Travel and Tourism Council

Regional cooperation towards the industry’s restoration is vital since the travelers will begin to explore regional countries in the second recovery phase. Formal regional partnerships with neighboring countries allow governments to focus on the next recovery level by sharing the lessons learned. Understanding travelers’ new behavioral patterns and sharing them among regional and international levels is also vital in the post COVID era.

Further, establishing travel bubbles; travel corridors or air bridges, will establish a safe zone between two countries or among a group of counties. Source markets will be highly benefited from travel bubbles and thus, Sri Lanka can consider their major source markets. Additionally, over time, facilitating and improving accessibility for international tourists can be considered by removing visa restrictions, improving access infrastructure (roads, ports, rail, and air), aviation deregulation, and easing border crossing formalities.

However, only after ensuring the control of spreading the COVID 19 virus through effective measurements, Sri Lanka tourism can pay attention to applying recovery strategies to all the possible source markets despite whether there are a travel bubble. The existing Europe market, Middle East market and other possible potential markets can be strategically approached thereafter.

However, one can’t deny that social distancing rule and other health instructions must be followed for a long time until a successful vaccine against the virus becomes available.

*Senior Lecturer, Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka. Maheshika Dissanayake presented this article at a webinar organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi

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