Destination Readiness & Innovation in a New Era -Part 3

By 6 April 2021May 3rd, 2021Sustainability

Destination Readiness & Innovation in a New Era -Part 3

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By Julie King

Interview with Kimarli Fernando

In this first blog, we will hear how Sri Lanka as a destination has adapted, challenges they have faced and overcome, new measures in place and how they’re innovating and marketing to rebuild and reshape tourism. 

Kimarli Fernando is the chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism, heading the government’s four main tourism entities, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lanka Convention Bureau and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management 

Can you please tell us about the impact of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka? You currently remain closed to international tourism; how challenging has that been for the industry, and what measures have been put in place to ensure visitor confidence across the whole customer journey when the destination reopens?

Sri Lanka’s challenge has been a little more than other countries because last year we had a bombing. We had just recovered in the last few months of 2019, and then COVID-19 happened. Our first patient was in March, but we were well prepared. We already set up centres for contract tracing and testing. The government set up a COVID-19 Task Force, and they took action immediately after the first patient was diagnosed. We closed the airport and the schools and we had a very strict quarantine procedure, compared with other countries. Very few people were able to move about, except essential services and agriculture. Agriculture was allowed because we wanted to make sure we were self-sufficient in food and so the people would not have fear. 

What was a success was the continuous communication we had, several times per day. The COVID-19 Taskforce communicated with our people and let them know what was happening. Where there was incorrect information, we addressed it, and everybody accepted and wanted to contribute and participate in this, which was beneficial. 

In the first wave, we did not have very many deaths. The total number of deaths today is 22 deaths, for 22 million people. A lot of these came from overseas and Sri Lankan returnees. Now we are heading into the second wave. That is also being managed with the contract tracing, which we used right from the beginning, with TESTING, TESTING, TESTING  and quarantining. And every COVID-19 patient to date has been put into hospital as we didn’t allow patients to stay at home. We may change that as we are one of the best in fatalities compared with the rest of the world, including Asia. 

What we did for the tourism industry, in particular, is that we studied all the guidelines from all over the world. And we created a very detailed pipeline, which won us the Safe Travel, World Travel Tourism Council award quite early on, before most of the countries in Asia. That is a very detailed 80-90 page document, which is very strict. KPMG, the international auditing firm, does the auditing for us. It’s done free of charge by the government; however, if you fail; you have to pay for it and do it again, so it’s quite strict. The staff have to go on quarantine and have PCR tests, and the doctor has to be on call for the hotel, how the rooms are disinfected and all other matters are covered.

With the immigration side of things, what we have done is because of COVID-19, we have included an app in the immigration form itself, which is online already. We call this a zero version, and there, when you apply for your visa, you provide us with a little bit more information as to where you are going to stay, at what we call Level One hotels which have passed the KPMG requirements and there is a minimum stay requirement of fourteen days. 

Obviously, these guidelines will continue to evolve and change and relax, but at the moment, the requirement is fourteen days, with a PCR test before and a PCR test when you arrive. This is an antigen test that takes only twenty minutes. So we have said a maximum of two hours for this procedure, but we need it to be much less and then PCR tests when you’re in the Level One hotel as well. 

That is the procedure we have followed, but unfortunately, we could not open the airport because so many Sri Lankans want to come back.  I believe that the airport will open sooner than later. His Excellency, the President, is of the view that we ready to handle this. 

And I understand you have created something unique that treats what you believe are the symptoms of COVID-19, or is it more of a preventative natural therapy?

It’s a good question. As a preventative, you take it for four to six days morning and evening. It’s about sixty herbs put together as a powder, and you boil it. If you do get COVID-19, you take a bigger dose of the same medicine immediately for a few days. I can only speak for myself and for some of the people I know, but it has been quite beneficial, and even the doctors are doing that. So we have survived in that way.

“We also discovered that the death rate being so low, may be due to us having our own indigenous medicine. We are using it, even myself, to survive this, and I have worked all the way through. We feel that the PR, as a result of that, is quite positive for us.”

What has Sri Lanka done to support the wider tourism industry on the ground at this time because businesses have been decimated? 

The first thing we did was look at the poor. The government gave all of the tour guide drivers who were registered and trained with us a one-off grant. Then we gave a debt moratorium for companies like travel agents or the accommodation sector. This was for electricity bills, one-year water bills etc., until  March next year. Payment for lease rentals was delayed with no penalty interest. 

We are also currently working on a salary payment package where people would be paid minimum wage salaries. The cabinet has approved that, and they are going through the process of funding and we are also looking at alternative employment for people. The industry on its own has moved a lot; some have moved to agriculture; for example, they have understood this and that there will be technology-based areas in future, so we have to be realistic. Also, because I believe the numbers will not be the same as before. For example, Sri Lanka has never been like Thailand, which had thirty-eight or thirty-nine million tourists. We never went for mass-market tourism; the highest we’ve ever had is two to three million. So it’s not a mass scale, but still, we have to find a resilient model and to that extent, we are looking at a social protection scheme. 

In terms of collaboration with the industry, how has the industry together with the government united in this time since the onset of the pandemic? And how much has the industry input impacted the decisions you’re making for the future?

Input from the industry is always there simply because, despite everything, we have had two physical meetings with all the industry associations. We put them all together in one huge hall with the social distancing and got the input of all of the associations. We are also in ongoing talks with them. 

We have also become involved with the universities which are teaching tourism. So we got them involved, we got the other ministries involved because you know tourism is not just us; we need wildlife, conservation etc., so several ministries are involved. We are fortunate for the first time to work very closely with all of them. 

And recently, for ‘Keeping the Sri Lankan Holiday Dream Alive’, we spoke to CNN; they advertised our Sri Lanka tourism for one month free of charge. Then we appealed to the BBC, which also marketed Sri Lanka on all channels, for one month as with CNBC; all three of them. We are just right now having a Virtual Safari, which has several million followers. 

“As an industry we weren’t solving the problems that really mattered. We were disconnected from each other and not leading the way.”

Julie King
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In addition to the Find Your Formula, Audit Your Business For Growth (4 modules) you will have access to the Business DNA and Personal DNA curriculums, you will also join the flagship L&D Program that has been designed specifically to support business owners navigate the global pandemic of 2020/21 to drive them into growth.

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  • Weekly webinars on growth and sustainability
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  • Learn from Bonailie thought leaders
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  • Connect with Bonailie global tourism community
  • Learn from other industries via BoB Earth
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