Colombo (CNN) – A year ago, Dinesh Perera and his friends owned and operated only two places suitable for the LGBTQ community in Colombo: Mahasen by Foozoo and Mahasen Terrace by Foozoo. Both hotels sat across from each other in Mahasin Al Moatha, a quiet road in a residential neighborhood of Colombo.
Foreign and local visitors flocked to them, drawn to the rooftop cooking and drinks sessions, places where the rumbling of morning coffee cups, chatting and laughter, fills the atmosphere, providing an escape from the crowded metropolis.
But those days are over.
“Our class has ended in the merits of Moatha,” Pereira told CNN Travel, referring to their decision to close their Colombo properties in December.
They are not alone. Since the start of the pandemic, many tourism service providers across the island have been forced to close. However, for some institutions in Sri Lanka, their problems started before Covid-19 forced the world’s borders to close.
From one crisis to the next
“We only started getting our regular reservations in November and December (2019) after the Easter attacks,” Pereira says, referring to their months-long recovery.
Unlike other hotels that did not do well, both Foozoo hotels continued to welcome guests during the first wave of Covid-19.
“We made reservations during the first lockdown. Most of the foreigners stranded in the country decided to make Foozoo their long-stay home,” says Pereira.
On March 19, 2020, Sri Lanka closed its borders to international tourists while imposing a curfew by police to control the spread of Covid-19, which has lasted for more than two months.
With restrictions eased after the first wave, Pereira continued to welcome local tourists.
“That was just enough to keep our business going,” he says.
Then the second wave came in October.
Since then, the Covid-19 numbers have continued to rise. As of February 8, the country has recorded more than 68,000 cases and 351 deaths, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.
“I remember we had reservations for October, but with the news of the second wave, all reservations were canceled. We didn’t receive any guests after that. The losses could not continue. So we had to endure,” says Pereira.
Sri Lanka has reopened, but doubts remain
As part of the reopening, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) implemented a plan to allow international travelers to return after a pilot project called for 1,500 Ukrainian tourists to arrive in groups and travel in a “biosafety bubble”.
The plan comes with several limitations. Tourists must stay in ‘Level 1’ accommodation for 14 days. Guests are allowed to use facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, salons, and restaurants as well as leave the hotel during quarantine to go sightseeing, provided that they travel with tour guides and registered drivers.
They must pay up to three PCR tests and have evidence of a negative PCR test 96 hours before they arrive in Sri Lanka.
Those accompanying tourists, including guides and drivers, must quarantine for a period of 14 days.
The resumption of international tourism came too late for the Mahasen by Foozoo, which closed its doors recently.
Courtesy of Nathan Mahindra
Although it is a step in the right direction, many feel that it is not sufficient to help the small businesses most affected.
“I don’t think it can work,” says Shawn Mohamed, owner of the now closed White Peacock Hostel in Dickwella, in the south of the country.
“It is hard to benefit those who really need tourism. For most medium and small sized accommodations, the process of registering by SLTDA and obtaining ‘Level 1’ standards is a rigorous process.”
For Tier 1 recognition, hotels registered under SLTDA are required to have a “safe and secure” certification, a process that requires lengthy scrutiny. Several operators CNN spoke with complained about delays and misplaced apps.
Once approved, the hotel can choose to add them to their list of Tier 1 accommodations. These hotels are only permitted to accept foreign guests and cannot host events.
Sustainable travel for local tourists, too
Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior is best explored with charming trains climbing through the countryside covered in tea plantations.
For those unable to obtain certification, the future remains bleak.
Although some tour operators have made temporary arrangements to pay their employees’ salaries, others are not so fortunate. Many Sri Lankans involved in tourism now work as daily wage laborers after losing their jobs. Others have entered into new ventures.
Others feel that the epidemic and the Easter bombings showed that Sri Lanka was too dependent on foreign tourists.
“SLTDA has always focused only on a small niche market of seasonal and discerning travelers with no regard for what travelers are looking for,” says Mohamed.
Instead, he says, there is much more to do to promote tourism to local travelers.
“The potential is huge. Most Sri Lankans don’t know what their country has to offer them. They often travel abroad in search of places, attractions and experiences that are abundant in Sri Lanka,” says the former hotel owner, who has traveled a lot in the country.
In keeping with global travel trends, a large number of foreign and domestic travelers in Sri Lanka are now looking for experiences that go beyond hotel and resort stays and include a mix of traditional cuisine, wellness, outdoor and cultural activities.
“We’re working on it,” says Dhammika Wijesinghe, SLTDA’s General Manager, referring to the organization’s sustainable tourism model and efforts to promote the country’s attractions to local tourists.
As part of this, they plan to create long-term opportunities for local communities.
“We have had workshops to educate people about sustainable practices,” Wijesinghe says, referring to two sessions in Kandy and Sigiriya in recent months. “We took a market-oriented approach. We focused on establishing tourism markets in different countries, be it India, China, Germany or the United Kingdom.”
The director general says Covid-19 has pushed a new direction.
“Finally we’re thinking about creating a service or product-driven approach,” she says. “I think most travelers are now looking for wellness and adventure experiences.”
Professor Athula Jananapala, an academic at the University of Sabaragamua in Sri Lanka, who holds a PhD in Tourism Management, says any plans to develop the country as a destination must take into account the country’s grassroots communities.
“Most of our sites and tourism facilities are located in rural areas, so the people who live in these areas should get the most benefit. Sustainability should focus on the integration of local communities, but this is not happening in Sri Lanka,” he says.
Gnanapala says about 90% of tourism establishments are run by small and medium scale entrepreneurs.
He says SLTDA needs to pay more attention to the issues these operators face rather than focusing on only promoting iconic landmarks and wildlife safaris for tourists.
“We have a lot of attractions. We can create different experiences that focus on wellness, bird watching, waterfalls, and of course our kitchen,” he says, “Why not develop rural tourism? It helps us integrate grassroots communities so they can benefit from it.”
The Back of Beyond’s Property near Sigiriya features tree houses and eco-friendly cottages perched on the rocks.
Courtesy of Beyond
“Our first project started in 2007, and it’s targeting local travelers,” says Mandy Dallowat, Communications and Social Media Director for Back of Beyond.
“We wanted to offer them a travel experience that is closer to nature while keeping our prices affordable. Over the years, the concept has become so successful that not only locals, but foreigners visit us in large numbers.”
She says the company offers travelers beautiful sites close to nature, fresh local food prepared by village chefs and outdoor activities.
The most visited property near the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya, bordering a quiet stream running through the forest, hosts tree houses and eco-friendly cottages perched on the rocks.
Meanwhile, in southern Sri Lanka near Yala National Park, Back of Beyond offers a wonderful experience overlooking sprawling dunes and natural pools.
“Our concept is definitely sustainable,” says Daluwatte, “that’s why we’ve been working for such a long time,” referring to bookings that Back of Beyond has continued to receive during the pandemic.
Because of that, we can also pay our employees. They belong to the community.
Dias also ran a homestay prior to the pandemic. Foreigners have loved staying with his family, he says, but it offers little to no charm for local visitors.
“Our home stay did not receive many domestic travelers, so it is temporarily closed now,” says Dias. “But we receive many groups at the camp site. People from Colombo come here to spend the weekend.”
Bringing Sri Lanka’s wildlife to the world
In response to the pandemic, Leopard Trails ranger Dhanula Jayasinghe has created a virtual safari on Airbnb.
Courtesy Leopard Trails
“It wasn’t profitable,” he says, “but it kept us standing.”
“We offered a discounted price during the pandemic, and our program worked.”
Unlike traditional jeep safaris, Leopard Trails provide a luxurious, luxurious experience with local cuisine, bonfire and a guided safari with information on wildlife behavior, habitats, and identification of individual tigers in national parks.
“We also ran a little guards program for children. Families with young children loved it,” says Jayasinghe.
For those outside Sri Lanka, Jayasinghe created a virtual safari on Airbnb with support from colleagues in the industry in April 2020 in response to the pandemic.
His Cheetah Safari is the only virtual experience on Airbnb from Sri Lanka and has crossed 250 reservations. While 10 people can join the tour, at $ 14 per person, users can opt for private reservations with up to 100 people.
The virtual tour is a mixture of photos, videos and stories from the wild; It quickly gained popularity with over 250 five-star reviews.
“We’re getting a mix of requests,” says Jayasinghe.
“Sometimes there were families from all over the world. They couldn’t travel to meet each other. Sometimes we had roommates working from home who needed something fun and interactive. We also had college groups. Our tour was a lesson for them in the classroom today.”
Jayasinghe is pleased that the Virtual Tour is also promoting Sri Lanka as a tourist destination with the creation of a new marketplace for Leopard Trails.
“I bring the wildlife experience to people who have never visited Sri Lanka before, and who live thousands of miles from the country. They are an inspiration to visit us when restrictions are eased.
“I think I’m a tourism ambassador,” he adds with a chuckle.