It is hard not to notice that tourism is increasingly the most important source of foreign exchange for developing countries around the world, and increasingly so for countries emerging from conflict. The death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and subsequent end of the brutal civil war in May 2009 brought almost immediate attention to the development of tourism in Sri Lanka. According to the Sri Lanka Financial Times on May 31, 2009, “everyone wants a piece of the action and foreign contractors are flowing into the city, already housed in five star hotels.” Similarly, following years of conflict, 2009 saw tourism boom in Lebanon with nearly 2 million tourists visiting the country, a record that exceeds even the glamorous years before the Civil War when Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East.
As Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands (the New York and Bangkok-based ultra-luxury Asia private tour operator), stated: “Sri Lanka is one of the world’s perfect travel destinations… From its extreme physical beauty, to its diversity of experiences, to the kindness of its people, Sri Lanka truly has it all.” However, due to the serious internal strife that the country has faced over the past two-and-half decades and the devastating Tsunami of 2004 that killed over 40,000 people, tourism on the island has struggled hugely. Following the demise of the Tigers however the island paradise is once again began beckoning visitors with its rich art and culture, ancient architecture, marvelous beaches and stunning hill country, 5-star hotels, and so much more.
Then the global recession set in, grinding international tourism almost to a halt between latter part of 2008 and 2009. Sri Lankan tourism has therefore been buffeted by both internal and external crises, and the fact that it still continues to be buoyant, speaks volumes for the resilience of the industry. For the past three years, there has been a year-on-year drop in arrivals of 11.7 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively. In spite of these tremendous odds, the industry has continued to maintain its position as Sri Lanka’s fourth-largest foreign-exchange earner, next to textile and garments, tea, and worker remittances. In this context, it should also be highlighted that, unlike other foreign exchange earning sectors, tourism is almost a 100 percent value-added industry.
The key for Sri Lankan businesses in taking advantage of the lightening of the recession in 2010 will be their marketing tactics. During the civil war marketing efforts focused around the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka with tour packages revolving around the safer, Southern areas of Sri Lanka outside of areas of conflict. However, as stated by Rohan Karr, general manager of the 5 star Cinammon Grand Hotel in Colombo, there is a whole range of new opportunities and destinations in Sri Lanka which have now been opened up for tourism. Locations such as Trincomalee or Jaffna, which were previously within the conflict zone, are now able to attract tourists again.
Similarly, Lebanon’s tourism industry witnessed unparalleled growth during 2009. In figures released to the Associated Press on 19th January 2010, the Tourism Ministry of Lebanon said 1,851,081 tourists visited the country last year, a 39 percent increase from the year before. The previous record was 1.4 million tourists in 1974 – just before the outbreak of the disastrous 1975-90 Civil War. The booming tourism sector is the latest sign of progress in Lebanon, a country that, over the years, has become notorious for kidnappings, car bombs and political assassinations. The country is however now seeing far greater stability and drawing a steadily increasing flow of foreigners to its snow-capped mountains and stunning Mediterranean seaside.
During the Civil War, tourists simply stopped arriving, scared off by reports of Westerners being snatched off the streets of Beirut. A thriving tourism industry that lured Hollywood stars to the Middle East all but dried up. The industry was just starting to recover in 2005 when Lebanon’s former billionaire Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the power behind the multi-billion-dollar post-war reconstruction, was assassinated in a massive bombing in Beirut. In July 2006, Israel then waged a devastating 34-day war in which 1,200 Lebanese were killed and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure destroyed. Thousands of tourists and holidaying Lebanese expatriates were evacuated from the country because of the fighting. Lastly, in 2008 clashes erupted between opposition and pro-government gunmen in Beirut after the government moved to curb Hezbollah’s military communications network. More than 80 people were killed in the ensuing violence. Nonetheless Lebanon has seen far greater stability recently and last year formed a unity government. The New York Times named Beirut as the top place to visit in 2009 and, as a result, has helped boost the country’s image further.
The economic crisis has not stifled people’s desire to travel but it has affected what people are willing to spend on travel. In this way, it goes without saying that destinations that offer value for money with favourable exchange rates will have the advantage as price becomes a key issue. The cheapness of currency in both the Lebanese Pound and Sri Lankan Rupee will therefore be extremely luring for British travellers in 2010, especially due to the recent strengthening of Sterling making currency exchange much more affordable. What these two countries offer is authentic and exciting travel with a twist at good value. As mentioned in my previous article, this is what travellers coming out of a recession are looking for and, given the recent suffering of these two magnificent destinations, lets hope this is the case.