COLOMBO (Reuters) - With its capital under curfew following devastating Easter Sunday bomb attacks on churches and upmarket hotels, Sri Lanka is filled with fear, horror and grief and tourists who have been flocking to the Indian Ocean island could cancel in droves.
A tweet posted on the travel booking website First Choice captured the trepidation among holidaymakers, while some airlines and travel agents said they would waive cancellation charges for people scheduled to travel imminently.
“What are you doing about the holidays you have booked to that country?” tourist Judith Ann Clayton asked on the social media site.
“Clearly it is unsafe for anyone to go there.”
Others set to travel said they would not to be cowed into cancelling.
“Not giving in to terror. We want to support you in your time of need. Never gave any thought about cancelling our trip,” Facebook user John Karmouche said in a post.
Named by the Lonely Planet guide for independent travellers as the best country to visit in 2019, Sri Lanka had rebuilt its image as a tropical paradise after crushing a long-running separatist insurgency by ethnic minority Tamils a decade ago.
Arrivals of 2.3 million last year were up by more than 400 percent on 2009 levels, according Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority data.
But the suicide bombers who killed at least 290 people, including 32 foreigners, and wounded 500 have in all likelihood ended the boom in tourism for some time.
Denmark’s richest man, Anders Holch Povlsen, and his wife lost three of their four children in a blast at one of the hotels. A British mother and son were killed at a breakfast buffet and two Australians were also among the dead.
At Colombo airport, departing holidaymakers were relieved to be getting out.
“There have been a lot of messages from home,” said British teacher James Turner, who was leading a school cricket tour.
Tourists were also arriving but many said they would steer clear of the capital.
“We’re getting straight out of Colombo,” said Briton Ruth Adams, on holiday with her two children.
Tourism was Sri Lanka’s third largest and fastest growing source of foreign currency, after private remittances and textile and garment exports, accounting for almost $4.4 billion or 4.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018.
“The attacks will not only impact already weak economic activity (real GDP growth was at a 17-year low of 3.2 percent in 2018), but also the country’s relatively vulnerable external liquidity position,” Citi Asia Economics said in a note that warned the hardest blow would fall on tourism.
A U.S. State Department travel advisory warned of the danger of “terrorist groups” plotting more attacks. Targets could include tourist locations, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and airports.
Other governments, including Japan and Australia, have also cautioned citizens planning travel to Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australians “reconsider your need to travel and avoid all affected areas”.
JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, has waived cancellation charges, and modified its package tours leaving Japan before May 10 to avoid risky locations, like Colombo, and will decide later on tours leaving after May 11, a spokeswoman said.
Two major airlines in neighbouring India, state-owned Air India and the largest carrier Indigo, owned by Interglobe Aviation, said they would waive rescheduling and cancellation charges for travel scheduled before April 24.
India was the single largest source of visitors last year, with 425,000, while 266,000 came from China, Sri Lanka’s newfound friend, and more than 254,000 from old colonial power Britain.
The peak season for tourism in Sri Lanka is between December and March, while the rainy monsoon season lies between May and September.
MakeMyTrip.com, one of India’s largest travel booking portals, said in a statement that it was too early to quantify the impact of the attacks on tourist traffic to Sri Lanka, but anticipated that some would defer travel or go elsewhere.
There were no immediate cancellations on yatra.com, another Indian online booking portal, but new inquiries and bookings had slowed, said chief operating officer Sharat Dhall.
Visitors come for the glorious vistas across the forests in the national parks, the surf crashing on sandy beaches, verdant tea plantations, Buddhist temples and charming colonial towns.
The government’s latest tourism campaign celebrates the island’s charms with the simple slogan ‘So Sri Lanka’.
After Sunday’s outrage it could become a lament.
Reporting by Lidia Kelly in MELBOURNE, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in BENGALURU, Euan Rocha and Sankalp Phartiyal in MUMBAI, Aditi Shah in NEW DELHI, Alasdair Pal in COLOMBO; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel