New Year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears

COLOMBO: At a makeshift kiosk just off the Kadawatha Interchange in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, royal orange coconuts, bright green and yellow mangoes and small round wild oranges are stacked in neat heaps . A fruit vendor expertly slices a coconut with a knife and hands it to a customer, before turning to serve the next.

Around him, patiently waiting, a mixture of people. Vehicles stopped on the side of the road, drivers waiting for refreshing drinks before resuming their journey.

Sri Lanka, once deserted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is bustling once again.

And across the island is a most welcome sight: foreign tourists, who contribute significantly to the country’s economy. A tourism hotspot offering surf, sun, sand, cool hinterlands and UNESCO-protected sites of cultural and architectural significance, Sri Lanka relies heavily on visitors, who before the pandemic accounted for around $5 billion in revenue in currencies, i.e. nearly 5% of gross domestic product.

Successive COVID-19 lockdowns since March 2020 have brought the tourism sector to a complete halt, depriving thousands of people of their livelihoods. Crushed by an economic crisis due to dwindling foreign exchange reserves and rising foreign debt, Sri Lanka is desperate to revive the tourism industry, with the aim of making 2022 the “Year of the Visit”. in Sri Lanka” and generate $10 billion from the sector by 2025.

January proved that Sri Lanka may be on track to achieve the target. Nearly 30,000 people arrived in the country in the first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Russia, India, Ukraine, the UK and Germany, despite global fears of the new variant spreading highly contagious omicron.

“In Europe, there is a thought process to relax and deal with the virus,” Kimarli Fernando, chairman of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority, told Arab News.

“EU countries treat COVID-19 like the flu, suggest people get used to living with it, and treat the virus as an endemic disease. So that won’t be a problem.

She said the tourism authority expects around 1 million tourists to visit the country this year, half the number of visitors in 2018, which was Sri Lanka’s best year in terms of tourist arrivals. tourists.

“I’m absolutely confident we’ll hit those numbers,” Fernando said, dismissing fears that the emergence of omicron could force the island nation into lockdown. “We don’t see the potential for a lockdown at all.”

Nearly 63% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have already been fully vaccinated, with tourism workers receiving vaccines as a priority to facilitate the rapid reopening of the travel industry and the recovery of the economy.

Fernando added that in addition to vaccinations, tourism staff have also been properly trained to deal with the outbreak. “We actually physically audited each hotel. All staff are trained,” she said.

“Tour guides, drivers – they are all trained. In public, everyone wears their mask. Everyone is diligent, in terms of sanitizing and observing health precautions,” she added. “We’ve never relaxed those rules, so we don’t see a problem arising.”

But omicron isn’t the only factor that could pose a challenge for local hotel businesses.

To bolster its foreign exchange reserves, the government last year imposed a broad import ban to bolster foreign exchange reserves, causing fuel shortages and price hikes for food and other essential goods.

Harpo Gooneratne, chairman of the Colombo City Restaurant Collective, told Arab News he believes the industry, which has already faced many challenges, “will get through this”.

He added: “We will have to view this as a temporary setback that will last a few months, and in the meantime manage by cutting costs, managing inventory and pushing an aggressive marketing plan that will look into new markets.”

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