COLOMBO: In a makeshift kiosk, just off the Kadawatha Interchange in Sri Lanka’s western province, golden-orange king coconuts, bright green and yellow mangoes, and small, round wild oranges are stacked in neat piles. A fruit seller slices open a coconut deftly with a knife and hands it to a customer, before turning to serve the next.
Around him, waiting patiently, are a mix of people. Vehicles have pulled up to the side of the road, with drivers waiting for refreshing drinks before resuming their journeys.
Sri Lanka, once deserted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is bustling 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 about $5 billion of foreign exchange earnings, or almost 5 percent of gross domestic product.
Successive COVID-19 lockdowns since March 2020 resulted in the tourism sector grinding to a complete halt, depriving thousands of people of their livelihoods. Crushed by an economic crisis due to dwindling foreign reserves and mounting foreign debt, Sri Lanka is desperate to revive the tourism industry, with a target of making 2022 the “Visit Sri Lanka Year” and generating $10 billion from the sector by 2025.
January has proven that Sri Lanka may be on course to meet the target. Close to 30,000 people have arrived in the country in the first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Russia, India, Ukraine, the UK and Germany, despite global fears of over the spread of the new, highly contagious omicron variant.
“In Europe, there is a thought process of relaxing and dealing with the virus,” Kimarli Fernando, chairperson of the Sri Lanka 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, this will not pose a problem.”
She said that the tourism authority expects to see about 1 million tourists visiting the country this year — half the number of visitors in 2018, which was Sri Lanka’s best year on record in terms of tourism arrivals.
“I am absolutely confident we will reach these numbers,” Fernando said, dismissing fears that the emergence of omicron could force the island nation back into lockdown. “We don’t see a potential for a lockdown at all.”
Almost 63 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have already been fully vaccinated, with tourism workers receiving jabs on priority basis to facilitate the swift reopening of the travel industry and revival of the economy.
Fernando added that besides vaccinations, tourism staff have also been properly trained to deal with the outbreak. “We’ve actually physically audited every single hotel. The staff are all trained,” she said.
“Tour guides, drivers — they are all trained. In public, everyone is wearing their masks. Everyone is diligent, in terms of sanitizing and adhering to health precautions,” she added. “We’ve never relaxed those rules, so we do not see an issue arising.”
But omicron is not the only factor that could pose a challenge to local hospitality businesses.
To shore up its currency reserves, the government last year imposed a broad import ban to shore up foreign reserves, triggering shortages of fuel and price hikes for food and other essential goods.
Harpo Gooneratne, president of the Colombo City Restaurant Collective, told Arab News that he believed the industry, which has already withstood many challenges, will “manage.”
He added: “We will have to look at this as a temporary setback that will last a few months, and in the meanwhile manage by keeping costs down, managing inventories and pushing an aggressive marketing plan that will look at new markets.”