The second coming of a paradise island: How Sri Lanka bounced back from crisis
(CNN) — It has mile after mile of powder sand beaches lapped by clear, warm surf. It has beautiful unspoiled jungles.
It has incredible food, UNESCO-rated historical sites and diving resorts, charming railways, hiking, safaris and relaxation.
It was even named the top country to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet.
In other words, it’s paradise. But for much of the past six months, these idyllic spots have stood empty of all but a few visitors.
The place is Sri Lanka, the South Asian island nation off the southeastern tip of India, lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
And the reason why no one was visiting? A series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in its capital city Colombo that left 250 people dead in April of this year.
The attack brought a thriving travel industry — some 2.33 million annual visitors last year — instantly to its knees as safety fears underscored by official travel warnings drove many people to cancel trips and stay away.
But, against strong odds — exacerbated by the fact Sri Lanka had just a decade earlier emerged from a bloody 26-year civil war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in the island’s north — the country has begun to reestablish itself as a prime destination.
After the Easter Bombings, visitor numbers in Sri Lanka declined by around 70%.
A paradise lost seems to have been born again.
And while this is clearly good news for Sri Lanka, and for those looking to vacation there in the months to come, it’s also a valuable case study for the travel industry in how a destination rebounds from adversity. It also sheds light on changing attitudes among tourists to places that have been blighted by violence.
For Sri Lanka, immediately after the attack’s things looked bleak. Already reeling from the loss of lives, the island was also forced to face the brutal financial consequences.
Bookings were canceled. Flights were pulled. Hotels shut down. Tour guides, souvenir sellers, drivers — pretty much anyone whose livelihood depended on tourism — saw their income vanish overnight.
Tourism is Sri Lanka’s third largest foreign exchange earner, bringing around $4.4 billion annually. An estimated half a million Sri Lankans depend on tourism directly, while two million rely on it indirectly.
So the impact was devastating.
In May, a month after the attacks, visitor numbers were down by around 70%.
Caught off guard and unable to pay wages, some employers were forced to let their staff go.
Sri Lankan-born Farzana Dobbs, co-owner of boutique hotel Rosyth Estate House, reduced her workers’ pay to three-quarters for the months of May and June after guests either canceled or postponed their vacations.
“May was dire,” she tells CNN Travel. “We went to full pay from July as we just don’t want to lose our workers.
“I think some of the worst hit are the drivers. Most of them have taken leases on their vehicles. They have payments to make and families to look after, and they have no income whatsoever.”
Chauffeur and guide Prasad Brandigampola relied on his wife’s income when he suddenly found himself with no work, but says many of his peers struggled to make ends meet.
“For two months there was nothing,” he says. “Everyone feels it.”
Sarah Masters from the UK, who has been traveling to Sri Lanka for about 20 years, felt she had no choice but to cancel her 2019 holiday to the island nation.
“We held on for a while, but the UK Foreign Office said it wasn’t safe to go,” she tells CNN, referencing the travel warning issued to British travelers after the bombings.
“We finally gave in and canceled when they extended the advice by another two weeks. We were concerned we were going to lose our money.”
Masters has many friends who live on the island and says they, like others, have been feeling the strain.
“Our friends who have a hotel business in Sri Lanka have been struggling, which isn’t a surprise,” she says. “One friend lost her job, as there was no work at the hotel she’s based at.”
In the weeks after the attacks, Sri Lanka’s beaches and tourist areas remained pretty much deserted, with hotel occupancy dropping by around 85%.
The tourism industry the country had come to rely so heavily on was on life support. If it was to avoid total collapse, Sri Lanka desperately needed a plan.
The solution, it realized early on, was not to sit idly by and wait for recovery. It needed to go on the offensive to quickly win back its visitors.
Less than a month after the attacks, the government began working with a team of experts in crisis management.
Kishu Gomes, chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism, made no secret of the fact his country would have to work hard to reel back visitors. In May, he spoke of “aggressively planning to reassure the world” that it would be safe for them to return.
That first step clearly paid off. Just weeks later, in June, many countries, including the United States, revised their advice to their citizens. Warnings of possible imminent attacks were replaced by “exercise caution” notices.
While dozens of people suspected of links to the attacks were arrested in the immediate aftermath, by July the government was reviewing law enforcement. A former police inspector and ex-defense secretary were detained amid accusations of grave negligence.
It’s uncertain whether these measures or the fact that hotels were slashing prices by up to 60% can be credited but, the first shoots of recovery were starting to be seen. Visitors were trickling back.
Also aiding the recovery was Sri Lanka’s July decision to reintroduce visa-free arrivals for visitors from an expanded list of countries that already included EU nations and the United States. Further measures included a reduction in airline ground charges and aviation fuel prices.
Numbers remained significantly down on the previous year, but the disparity was dropping steadily.
According to the country’s Tourism Ministry, a total of 115,701 international tourists arrived in Sri Lanka during July, which marked a decline of over 40% from that same period last year. In August, arrivals increased to 142,587, a 28.3% decline from August 2018. By September the drop was 27.2% year-on-year, with 108,575 arrivals, down from 149,087.