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A resort outside Colombo which had high occupancy during the weekends from local clientele, was empty last weekend.

Hotels and resorts outside Colombo are facing cancellations for weekend stays, one reason why these institutions are barely managing to keep their head above water while debts and bank loans pile up.

All the hopes of a growing number of middle-class Sri Lankans – even though small – opting to spend the weekends at resorts and hotels that would have helped add to the bottom line of these businesses are fast disappearing as the COVID-19 pandemic aggressively takes root in the country.

Curfews and lockdowns are being clamped in some parts of the country with the number of cases from the Brandix Minuwangoda cluster so far accounting for half the total cases of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, making it impossible for people to travel in search of rest and relaxation.

As I reflected on these thoughts, I could hear the conversation from under the margosa tree where Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu were having their Thursday morning conversation.

“Ape gama langa thiyena hotalwalata issara game kattiya elavalu saha palathuru vikunuwa. Den eh hotal walin eva ganne nethi hinda, egollo loku amaruwaka wetila thiyenne (Many in our village who were selling vegetables and fruits to some nearby hotels have been badly hit as these hotels are not buying much these days),” said Serapina.

“Mage game inna goviyantath ema prashnemai thiyenne. Pitarata aya enne nethi hinda, egollange aadayamata loku paaduwak (The farmers in my village have the same problem. Lack of tourists has affected their livelihoods),” noted Kussi Amma Sera, while Mabel Rasthiyadu added: “Sancharaka viyaparaya matha ape gamwala yepena kattiyata aanduwa mokak hari sahanayak dunnoth hondai (I hope the government will provide some relief to villagers who depend on tourism).”

At that moment the phone rang. It was my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya (short for Samson) on the line. “I say… how are you?” he asked. “Fine, fine,” I replied.

“These curfews and lockdowns are a real bother. With the fear of the virus spreading, I cancelled a visit this weekend with my family to an outstation resort. You can never take chances as there seems to be a community spread of the disease,” he said.

“Yes it seems to be spreading. How unfortunate for hotels and resorts, they were making a partial recovery with weekends getting filled up with locals. Now to be hit once again by the pandemic. I don’t know for how long they can survive,” I said. We discussed the situation in tourism and other affected sectors before hanging up.

Two weeks ago, the World Bank projected a grim picture of Sri Lanka’s economy, saying economic growth will shrink by 6.7 per cent in 2020 and a quick tourism rebound was highly unlikely in Sri Lanka. “One can’t be optimistic about a quick revival in tourism because tourism is not only the result of the closure of borders and lockdown measures but also hesitancy among tourists themselves to travel,” said Hans Timmer, World Bank Chief Economist for South Asia. Adding to this misery is the fact that a second wave of infections in Europe – Sri Lanka’s main tourism source – is worse than the first wave.

For the record, tourist arrivals until March this year (when the airport was closed) totalled 507,311 against 745,600 in the same 3-month period in 2019, a sharp drop. Arrivals in March 2020 alone fell by 71 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. The drop in arrivals this year until March was largely due to negative publicity from the April 2019 terrorist bombs which killed nearly 50 tourists and scores of locals.

Earnings from tourism also fell by 17.7 per cent in 2019 (less than US$4 billion) from a growth of 11.6 per cent in 2018 ($4.3 billion), reflecting the setback in the tourism industry. The contribution to GDP from tourism is close to 5 per cent, while the sector employs close to 500,000 workers. Arrivals in 2018 were 2.3 million and heading for 2.5 million, the following year, before the April 2019 attacks reversed the trend and saw arrivals in 2019 fall to 1.9 million. Based on the progress earlier in the year, this was expected to improve in 2020. All these hopes have been dashed by the pandemic.

Apart from the leisure and accommodation sector, outbound travel agencies have also been badly hit with many employees being asked to work from home to save on rent while others have shut down unable to sustain themselves without any business as outbound travel has come to a complete halt. Many agencies relied on group tours to various parts of Europe and popular Asian cities like Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, while agents also relied a lot on official corporate travel and incentive travel by companies seeking to provide a holiday for their key management staff.

Tourism authorities here are seeking to promote the country’s famous holiday spots among locals with regional promotion campaigns that would entice them to visit these areas as part of the plan to boost domestic tourism. However, with the pandemic spreading its tentacles across Sri Lanka, most people are reluctant to venture out and holiday.

Reflecting on the conversation of the three friends, a large percentage of hotels and resorts provide business to local communities which means all the income generated in those areas go back to those communities. In many instances, most of the staff also come from nearby villages which helps to improve the economic status of the community.

It is for this reason, in the current crisis but when the pandemic situation improves and it’s safe to travel to various parts of the country, Sri Lankans, who have disposable incomes and can afford a holiday, should spend more time in local hotels and resorts as a gesture of goodwill towards sustaining these businesses. Doing so means they are also helping the communities to sustain their livelihoods.

With the tourism recovery, according to some experts, taking more than a year until the next 2021 winter season arrives, this kind of support from domestic travellers is vital towards the sustenance of this industry until and when foreign tourists return to the country. For the moment, foreign exchange earnings from foreign tourists would have to be on the back burner.

While I was putting the finishing touches to this week’s column, in walked Kussi Amma Sera with a mug of strong, plain tea for me saying, “Sir, ape kattiyath duk vindinawa sancharaka viyaparaya wetila thiyena nisa (Sir, our people are also suffering because tourism has been affected).” I nodded and thought to myself that for the first time Sri Lankan holidaymakers can help save the tourism industry from total collapse.

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