The U.S. State Department issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory to Sri Lanka on Apr. 26, asking Americans to “reconsider travel to Sri Lanka due to terrorism.”
It is the second-highest warning the government can issue on its new four-tier advisory. Level 4 recommends no travel at all.
After a series of coordinated suicide bombings killed more than 300 people in the greater Colombo area, the State Department issued a Level 2 warning.
The reissued advisory also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees in kindergarten through 12th grade; and authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members.
“The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Sri Lanka due to the security environment,” the warning said.
“Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets, shopping malls, government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports, hospitals, and other public areas.”
The new warning comes as hotels in Sri Lanka are grappling with an upswing in cancellations. In addition to three churches, the Easter Sunday attack hit three five-star hotels: Shangri-La, Kingsbury, and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the country's capital.
Sri Lanka's Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera told reporters he expects a 30 percent drop in arrivals, amounting to a loss of about $1.5 billion.
“The entire industry is pulling together to try to persuade people not to cancel,” said Miguel Cunat, chief experience officer for Sri Lanka In Style, a luxury travel company.
Cunat told Travel Marker Report cancellations are currently around 25%. While initially after the bombings, there weren’t many cancellations, Cunat said, once countries changed their travel advice to “non-essential travel to Sri Lanka,” it triggered a new wave of cancellations. In addition to the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia have issued similar warnings.
“We have relaxed payment and cancellation terms and are talking to people over the phone. We’re advising clients to ‘bear with us’ for a few weeks, a month or so,” Cunat said. “There is a point at which traveling to Sri Lanka is no less risky than traveling to Bali or Turkey and so many other destinations around the world. And then you think places like New Zealand are immune, and look what happens.”
The Mandarina Colombo hotel in Sri Lanka, which opened in early 2017, has seen a nearly 40% drop in bookings and an equal amount of cancellations because of the terrorist attack, USA Today reported. The hotel told the publication it has never been at less than 80% -85% occupancy over the last two years, but “this month, this disaster has put us at a record low of 42% occupancy.”
The president of the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, Sanath Ukwatte, told travel industry publication, Skift, that the Mount Lavinia hotel saw 20% of bookings canceled so far. Ukwatte owns the hotel.
It comes at a time when Sri Lanka tourism was establishing itself as a top-tier destination. The island nation, with its palm-fringed beaches and lowland jungles, was recently named the best place to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet. Sri Lanka welcomed 2.3 million tourists in 2018, according to the nation's Tourism Development Authority. Tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2019 jumped 4.6% to 740,600 from last year. Tourism numbers have been on the upswing since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009.
Like other countries that have faced terrorism attacks, from France to the UK, the initial fear among travelers will subside and allow tourism to once again prosper. For those who stick to their travel plans, they “are going to experience Sri Lanka free from crowds and the infrastructure at the best it’s ever been – amazing hotels, vehicles, experiences,” Cunat said.
“We think that as soon as we are through this initial phase and things calm down, and as soon as key governments like the UK, USA, and Germany relax their travel advisories, there is going to be no better time to come to Sri Lanka than ‘sooner rather than later.’”