Skirt store

Lonely Planet’s top tourist destination takes a heavy hit after Easter Sunday blasts

Hikkaduwa (Sri Lanka): Sipping fresh coconut water while sunbathing on the deserted Hikkaduwa beach, Alexi Konchayenko, a Ukrainian sports trainer, struck a stoic note.

“Bomb explosions can happen anywhere, anytime,” he said, adding he was scared. “Sri Lanka is an amazing country. This is my first visit and I will also tell my friends to come.

It’s a lonely voice though – and a lonely presence. Sri Lanka was the Lonely Planet guide’s top travel destination in 2019, but since the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels last month, foreign tourists have fled.

Many of those who were to come in the next few months have canceled. Hotel occupancy across the island has dropped from 85% to 90%. Tropical beaches, restaurants and shops are empty.

The coordinated suicide bombings of April 21 not only destroyed lives, but also wiped out the livelihoods of Sri Lankans who depend on tourism. More than 250 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the United States and the United Kingdom, died in the explosions claimed by the Islamic State group.

Tourists normally come here in southwestern Sri Lanka for the strong waves that are perfect for surfing and the sparkling clear waters made for snorkeling. Today, of the 27 hotels, very few are open. Most, as well as the restaurants that line the six kilometers of palm-lined beach, are closed.

Among the few hotels still open is the Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel. All 50 rooms were occupied on April 21; today, only a handful.

“It’s a real disaster. We don’t know what to do right now,” said Sanjeewani Yogarajah, an executive at the hotel. She said the attack cost the hotel 5.5 million Sri Lankan rupees ($31,000), forcing hotel management to send half the staff home.

Lankesha Ponnamperuma, general manager of the Hikka Tranz hotel chain, is one of the lucky ones. While most hotels report mass cancellations, it survives on business from local residents. Last Friday, two-thirds of the 150 rooms were booked, mainly by domestic tourists.

“I haven’t fired anyone yet. Instead, we train our employees to adjust their spending and help them restructure their bank loans,” Ponnamperuma said.

Sri Lanka Hotel Association chairman Sanath Ukwatta said hotels had offered 30-50% discounts to attract local residents. “Such a strategy will not solve the problem, however,” he said, but “will at least help keep hotels in business.”

The manager of a clothing store said the owner had closed the group’s other two stores as well as the factory. “Business collapsed after April 21,” said Kumari, who declined to give her last name.

According to government figures, there has been an 80% drop in arrivals since the attack. Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP.

Last year, 2.3 million tourists visited the island, generating $4.4 billion in revenue, a jump of nearly 12% from 2017. Around half a million Sri Lankans depend directly tourism while two million depend on it indirectly.

One of them is Mohomed Musflick, the owner of a souvenir shop in Galle which is full of woodcarvings, local paintings and postcards. “I haven’t sold a single item since April 21. There are no tourists and we are in a huge crisis,” he said.

A travel ban issued by nearly a dozen countries is the biggest cause for concern. “The ban is our main concern. Until it is removed or relaxed, we cannot begin our marketing to attract tourists. If it is lifted soon, we hope we can bounce back this year or otherwise next year for sure,” Yogarajah said.

The industry is clear on what else it expects from the authorities: to ensure that strict security measures are in place to reassure potential visitors; persuade politicians to set aside their differences and adopt a bipartisan approach to national security; and work fast to get the travel ban lifted.

To help the industry cope, the government has put in place a relief package including easy loans at special rates and tax reductions. The government also plans to create a $100 million insurance fund to compensate any tourist injured or killed while visiting the island.

If all of this will work…only time will tell.