OLGA DEMETRI | July 20th, 2020

Crisis Planning and Mitigation Strategies: Considerations for Tourism Reliant Countries during COVID-19

As the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, countries are also grappling with severe economic consequences. Among the hardest hit are developing nations particularly those which rely heavily on tourism as the main engine for economic growth. As countries move to open up, strategies undertaken by nations across the globe will serve as a critical blueprint and provide best practices for others as they attempt to jump start their economies.

As it is clear from the U.S. example, opening up too soon can have a disastrous effect. However, a carefully calibrated plan will provide public and private sector leaders an ability to navigate the challenges ahead. The case of Sri Lanka, a small island nation of roughly over 21.6 million, provides a glimpse of the many considerations facing tourism dependent economies in the new and complex post-COVID world.

Sri Lanka, much as the rest of the world, began to feel the effects of the spread of coronavirus in March. The hospitality industry was rendered a severe blow by international travel restrictions and a national lockdown.  As tourism is intrinsically tied to the island nation’s entire economy, Sri Lanka’s economy came to a virtual halt. Given its importance particularly in terms of employment and foreign exchange earnings, national public and private sector leaders were facing a significant crisis.

Leaders on the island recognized the crucial need to restart the economy had to be balanced with having the pandemic under control. Detailed below are some strategic factors that could determine Sri Lanka’s long-term recovery and could help mitigate the impact of the current crisis in the short to medium term. These considerations are applicable in other regions of the world and could serve as a good roadmap for other developing nations particularly those that are reliant on tourism.

Crisis Planning: Recognizing Challenges and Crafting a Strategic Response

As a scenic tropical island, Sri Lanka is well known for its beautiful beaches and historic sites. A popular honeymoon destination particularly for Europeans, it has been competing with other leading islands for visitors in the years following the end of its tragic civil war. In the last decade, as more tourist options developed and the market matured, Sri Lanka increased its stature internationally as a desirable destination. Therefore, the current crisis brought on by COVID-19 is particularly devastating. For the local tourism industry, the stakes are very high in terms of reopening and stimulating the economy. 

As in other crisis situations, a plan to accommodate this year’s economic dislocation and prepare for a significantly altered environment is critical. Part of the Sri Lankan considerations included re-opening the industry in a phased fashion geared toward specific tourism targets. For example, in the early stages, tourists are most likely to be domestic travelers and in the future as the pandemic is brought under control globally an expansion into once again welcoming international travelers. Finally, a long-term strategy to help Sri Lanka ease through the current economic disruption and focus on marketing to a wider as well as niche travel markets.

To revitalize the tourism sector and ensure long-term stability, the key components of a comprehensive strategic plan for Sri Lanka should include:

  • Strategic Communications Campaign: Through a tailored campaign, it is essential that Sri Lanka communicate clearly the efforts that are being undertaken to make all properties and destinations on island safe for visitors as well as hospitality industry workers. This includes not only the utilization of personal protective gear, disinfectants, and shields but also the entire experience from arrival and through movements around the island.
  • Regulations Analysis: A thorough review as well as refinement of visa and other policies for tourists entering the country to ensure expedited processing at the airport. Reducing wait times at the airport and averting potential delays while not compromising on security and safety.
  • Branding and Marketing efforts: Initiatives both locally and internationally to invite travelers back to Sri Lanka by distinguishing itself through its efforts in controlling the virus locally. This must include digital campaign targeting existing markets as well as new potential markets.
  • Development of incentive programs: Working in tandem with airlines, hotels, tour operators, and other private sector institutions, Sri Lanka tourism can drive up its arrival numbers over time.
  • Creation of a luxury market: an important initiative catered to developing a bespoke high-end luxury market that will target discerning international travelers and garner global attention for Sri Lanka.

As always in every crisis, the success of the response and overcoming challenges is adequate planning and strategic vision. While it is challenging, the current crisis provides Sri Lanka the opportunity to adapt and innovate in terms of its tourism infrastructure and building a more resilient sector in the long-term.