Bringing tourists back…safely

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Bringing back tourists is proving to be a problem of gigantic proportions for Sri Lanka as well as for many other countries in the southern hemisphere that have seen their tourism industries decimated. Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere for a while, but even as richer countries exploit their vaccine advantages to kick-start tourism activities, predictions are that it will be well into 2023 when the poorest nations achieve satisfactory levels of inoculation.

Sri Lanka’s vaccine progress, if all goes according to plan, positions us well ahead of much of the world to successfully complete vaccinating the above-20 population by mid-October. While that timeline may be too late to claim any significant slice of winter bookings, there is still opportunity to bring in at least a smaller number of tourists to support both the ailing industry and the economy.

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While those of us who love to travel mourn the freedoms and experiences we’ve been missing, there are nearly three million Sri Lankans dependent on the tourism value chain who are grieving the annihilation of their livelihoods. For many of them, prolonged support is necessary as hope may not return even upon a full recovery. It is particularly important to note that tourism, unlike many other industries, offers numerous employment opportunities for women and youth too, making the socioeconomic consequences of this disaster even greater. Thus, even a partial resumption of tourist activity would position some tourism players at least to survive 2022.

The tourism industry has always been a private sector-led one and the role of the state and its institutions has been to facilitate the right conditions in which the industry may thrive. Covid-19 has put the State at the centre of tourism management, with policymakers having to grapple with prioritising the health of the populace over the needs of an economy desperate for its tourism dollars, and the tragedy, especially of smaller players, left helpless. Policy decisions must be informed by science and guided by experts, and it is hoped that a balance of input is sought before crucial decisions related to tourism are taken. Such policy doesn’t need to be developed in a vacuum; Sri Lanka must be open to learning from countries and regions that have set in place systems and controls to safely resume tourist activity, including the use of tools such as vaccine passports and pre-testing.

Building the confidence of tourists will be an uphill task – one that will take a combination of vaccine progress, reliable testing, and Covid management protocols on the ground, as well as diplomacy and destination marketing to rebuild an image that’s taken a beating. Just this past week, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added Sri Lanka to its list of highest-risk destinations due to the high case numbers reported in the country during the past few weeks. In addition, Sri Lanka’s combination of low testing and high case load has translated to alarming test positivity numbers, which can scare any tourist away.

Rapid vaccination is our unique advantage, and we must reap it to our benefit. Covid-19 has pressed upon us the reality of borders in our world – the open connections that allowed trade and tourism to function so smoothly were the very ones that allowed Covid-19 to sweep every part of the world within weeks. Borders were the first line of pandemic control and today, they are at the heart of pandemic politics – as powerful nations use the battlegrounds of others to play out their geopolitical agendas. Sri Lanka is now uniquely positioned at the intersection of the vaccinated, richer world and the unvaccinated, poorer world. We must find a way to safely bring those tourists back.

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