AGENTS are being urged to back efforts to rebuild Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourism industry after its latest body blow – this time from political unrest.
By 2004, Sri Lanka was gaining a reputation as an island paradise, perfect for a romantic retreat, beach break or cultural tour. Then came the tsunami, which devastated parts of the island, sending the tourism trade plummeting.
Sri Lanka was not the only destination hit but, while Thailand and the Maldives bounced back within a season, it has been slower to recover.
Now it is being further held back by safety fears following violence in the northeast of the country.
Sri Lanka’s main tourism centres on the southwest coast escaped the worst of the tsunami. Most hotels re-opened within months, often with better accommodation than before.
There has since been significant investment, with new luxury developments taking the destination upmarket.
But, just as the tourists were starting to return, a three-year ceasefire between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels started to crumble late in 2005, with a wave of political violence, suicide bomb attacks and fighting.
While the main tourist areas have not been affected, headlines about the violence seem to have put some holidaymakers off.
The Sri Lanka Tourist Board has been making a massive effort to counter these fears and make people aware the country is back in business after the tsunami.
A series of events included the Refreshingly Sri Lanka festival in London’s Trafalgar Square, which showcased the country to an estimated 30,000 visitors using dance displays, food and exhibition stalls.
A string of positive features on holiday shows, in newspapers and magazines have gone some way to counteract the negative headlines.
But while visitor numbers in the first half of this year were up on the same period in 2005, the indications are that trade for the second half of 2006 may worsen.
Some operators have reported business dropping, despite a host of bargain deals making Sri Lanka one of the best-value tropical options around.
Gold Medal Travel contracts manager John Pell said business is down about 20% compared with 2005.
Somak Holidays marketing manager Louise Newton said people are thinking twice, despite reassurances that tourist areas are safe. She said operators have reacted by cutting back the number of holidays they are offering.
“Companies have reduced their risk there because it’s such an unknown,” she said.
Newton thinks the island’s recovery will depend partly on agents in the UK.
“The tourist board needs travel agents to ensure Sri Lanka is on the list of options. We all have to play our part.”
Others think the impact has been over-estimated. Cosmos account executive Alison Pritchard has just returned from Sri Lanka, where she said locals felt the violence was exaggerated.
“They were a bit annoyed, feeling the violence is being portrayed in the media as worse than it is. People think it is happening close to the capital but actually it is in the north and quite far from the tourist areas,” Pritchard said.
The violence hasn’t affected Cosmos, she said, with sales up 30% this summer and 300% for this winter compared with 2005 figures.
There is a lot of sympathy for the tourist board and hoteliers as they struggle to reassure people the island is safe.
Tropical Locations managing director David Kevan said: “It’s a dilemma because if they constantly talk about it being safe, then clients might think certain areas are unsafe.”
However, he is optimistic the effects of recent headlines will be short-lived.
Pell said the Sri Lankans have been doing all they can but warned: “We have a lot of deals but if people aren’t confident about the safety of a destination, you can’t convince them to go because of value for money. It takes a period of quiet for confidence to return.”
Need some inspiration to sell Sri Lanka? Here are some of the new and refurbished hotels on offer – all rates are for February 2007
Browns Beach Hotel, Negombo
Cosmos has seven nights at this three-star hotel – including flights and transfers – from £740 per person
Kosgoda Beach Resort, Kosgoda
Somak has seven nights at this four-star hotel, including flights and transfers from £986 per person
The Lighthouse, Galle
Tropical Locations has seven nights at this luxury hotel, including flights and transfers, from £1,180 per person
Fortress Hotel, Galle
Gold Medal Travel has seven nights at the five-star hotel, including flights and transfers, from £1,565 per person