DestinationsSri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades, but the tourism sector says inbound travel can have a significant positive impact.

Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka right now?

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Governments all around the world are issuing travel advisories to defer all non-essential travel to Sri Lanka.
Governments all around the world are issuing travel advisories to defer all non-essential travel to Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: GettyImages/Mikhail Sotnikov

After the 2019 Easter bombings and the pandemic, Sri Lanka is now facing its third major crisis: political turmoil and an economic meltdown that has left the island nation of 22 million with acute shortages of food, fuel, medicines and gas.

As a primary contributor of foreign exchange, however, the tourism sector is being prioritized for resources, and industry members are appealing to international travellers “not to forget Sri Lanka”.

Following a strong Q1 rebound, the South Asian nation’s tourism sector — which accounts for almost 12% of GDP and is the third-largest source of foreign exchange after overseas worker remittances and the garments industry — has taken a huge hit. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority said inbound tourism arrivals fell by 60% in June, while domestic tourism has plunged by 90% and hotel occupancy is at a mere 5%.

The political instability appears to have marginally improved, however. New president Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in last week after then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid mass protests and resigned soon after. It remains uncertain whether these changes will satisfy protesters, especially after Wickremesinghe sent troops into a protest site the day after taking office.

The economic fallout will take much longer to recover, but tourism players are adamant that travel to Sri Lanka will help significantly, despite the moral dilemma some visitors may face about travelling to a country in crisis.

Hashan Cooray, marketing manager of Jetwing Hotels, which has 38 properties across the island, believes that tourists asking how they could be expected to visit the country when people are suffering is “a fair point”. However, he insists that foreign tourism will help to improve the situation as Sri Lanka will have more money to buy essential imports. “It’s a bit of a catch-22,” he admitted.

“Obviously more foreign tourists contributes more foreign currency to the economy, and money spent goes directly to people in the communities. Everyone benefits from tourists coming in. That is why we have not given up and we will not give up. We need to do something for our country in its time of need.”

Most Sri Lankans share this ideology, said Cooray, which is why the sector is prioritized for sourcing diesel and food. He reported that so far there's been no immediate danger to tourists, and believes there’s no risk of this as “the people understand the importance of tourism and that it can help us to recover in the short and long-term.”

Chamindra Goonewardene, sales and marketing director of Resplendent Ceylon, which has three properties across the country, echoes these sentiments.

“Tourists will play a crucial role in alleviating the issues that Sri Lankans have to go through at this present time. Some countries still have warnings that only essential travel is advised, but we honestly think that it’s essential that you visit Sri Lanka now,” he said.

Both Cooray and Goonewardene pointed out that while protests were roiling in the capital Colombo, the Australian cricket team completed a full test series to packed audiences in the southwest city of Galle, and were “welcomed with open arms”.

During the last one day international match, the entire stadium turned out in yellow in support of the Aussies. Goonewardene noted that “this is symbolic of the fact that foreigners will be welcomed here, and all Sri Lankans are truly grateful for these visits.”

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