COLOMBO, 28 January 2020: Tour product managers creating holidays in Sri Lanka believe 2020 will be a decisive year due to better road infrastructure, the increasing popularity of ecotourism products, new and flexible accommodation offerings and heightened security.
In the last few weeks, they report customer queries have increased. Optimism in the Sri Lankan travel trade is returning.
In the last three months, visitors to Sri Lanka have praised their experience and told tour operators that they received a very warm welcome and felt safe travelling around the island.
The UK headquartered tour operator Steppes Travel believes booking queries are returning to pre-April 2019 levels, but are not quite there yet. Steppes reported limited room availability over Christmas and New Year.
“We still have some ground to make up to reach the same passenger numbers travelling pre-April 2019, but we are positive for 2020,” said Steppes’ Sri Lanka product consultant Clare Burkey.
There’s a lot at stake as Sri Lanka tourism seeks to recover from Easter Sunday 2019. Tourism arrivals in 2018 were 2.2 million, earning USD4.4 billion. However, 2019 closed down at 1.9 million, according to LoveSriLanka.org, a significant private sector initiative created to promote the destination after the April 2019 setback.
“The travel trade had been immensely supportive of Sri Lanka since Easter last year,” said The Sri Lanka Collection director, Eleanor Milner, which specialises in boutique heritage hotels, a major attraction across the destination. “As soon as the [UK] travel ban was lifted so many tour operators immediately started supporting Sri Lanka again.”
The Sri Lankan government has played its role, but not as proactively as the private sector would have liked. Nevertheless, in the recovery period, tourism safety and security have been prioritised. Visa on arrival has been extended to 45 countries until the end of April 2020. Travel advisories have since been eased or lifted. The government has made a commitment to an open skies policy.
Infrastructure has been improved with the opening of Jaffna airport. Batticaloa and Ratmalana airports have been enhanced. A new road linking Colombo airport highway and the highway to the south has slashed travel time to Galle to just over two hours.
New Tourism Experiences
New tourism products and experiences are underpinning recovery. There have been new hotel openings and major investments at The Viceroy House in Pasyala and Haritha Villa & Spa in Hikkaduwa near Galle. The 26-suite Jetwing Kandy Gallery is due to open early 2020.
KK Beach boutique resort near Galle will welcome families with children from summer 2020. There is now a great choice of tented camp experiences such as Kulu Safaris, Ceylon Wild Safaris, Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris, and Leopard Trails. Gal Oya Lodge, the only accommodation in lesser-known Gal Oya National Park, is winning accolades for its wildlife spotting trips.
Ecotourism is an increasingly important card in Sri Lanka’s comeback. Sri Lanka is one of only 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity, based in Montreal.
“Forbes has rightly called Sri Lanka the best wildlife safari destination outside of Africa,” said Khiri Travel Sri Lanka general manager Petra Ismail.
It’s a sentiment echoed at Steppes. “What other destination can offer whale watching one day with elephant and leopard sightings, the next?” asked Burkey.
The Khiri GM said the country is now uniquely placed to deliver high-quality experiences due to three types of themed activities: learning from nature (e.g. participating in reforesting, leopard research), the charm of lesser-visited cultural sites (such as Ritigala), and getting close to local people, with personalised experiences across the country.
These themes have been incorporated in Khiri Travel’s updated Sri Lanka signature experiences for 2020: Culinary Ceylon (Gourmet Gluttony); Sustainable Wildlife Experiences – Camp Hopping in Yala National Park; Meander Through Memories – A Tale of Tea; Curries, Claypots & Kandyan Flavours; Musing with a Monk; and Adventures of Arrack.
In each trip, local experts share insights while guests experience first hand the beautiful defining elements of Sri Lanka: archaeology, curry, tea, arrack, leopards, elephants, architecture and more.
However, for the destination, aviation challenges remain. Flight pricing on Sri Lankan Airlines raised eyebrows over Christmas and New Year, at a time when the tourism upturn was still tentative. “We still need more special airfares from Sri Lankan Airlines and indirect carriers such as Emirates,” said Burkey.
Nevertheless, Ismail said the travel trade is now much more optimistic, and the country is looking forward to welcoming a surge of visitors in 2020. “With its immense diversity, stunningly beautiful landscapes, amazing wildlife, colourful and rich culture and ever-smiling people, it is not surprising that Marco Polo once called Sri Lanka the most beautiful island in the world.”