Last year, Sri Lanka was ranked the top country for travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet, but the devastating Easter Sunday bombings have had serious repercussions for the country. Lauren Haigh investigates
On the morning of 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, more than 250 people were killed and over 500 injured by eight bomb blasts in Sri Lanka. The attacks took place in three churches and four hotels in multiple locations throughout the country. UK newspaper The Guardian stated on 22 April that this was among the worst terrorist attacks carried out worldwide since 11 September 2001.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Sri Lanka Tourism sought to ensure the safety of tourists, rolling out its emergency response protocol. “Trained teams were deployed to the affected hotels, all hospitals and the airport to ensure that all tourists directly affected by the attacks received the care, attention and assistance they needed,” said Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Kishu Gomes.
At the same time, the global insurance and assistance industry reached out to its client and customer base. Carl Carter, Managing Director of Voyager Insurance, a UK insurer, told ITIJ: “The insurance and assistance industry was swift to respond to the Easter Sunday Bombings in Sri Lanka in that many travel insurers and brands were very quick to provide clear directives in how they would respond to both existing policyholders who were planning to travel, as well as to those who had travelled and were currently in Sri Lanka,” he said.
There is an obligation for travel insurance brands and distributors … to signpost customers to alternative travel insurance solutions if their product is not suitable for the traveller’s needs
On the ground in Sri Lanka, assistance firms began work of locating insureds and working with clients to bring them to safety or, in some tragic cases, repatriate mortal remains. One such assistance provider was Traveller Assist, who gave an account of a phone call it received from a family member: “She reported that her son and his wife were staying at the Shangri-La Hotel and she had not been able to contact them by phone. As the medical and security assistance provider for the couples’ travel insurer, our team contacted the Shangri-La Hotel who, amazingly in the chaos, answered their phone. They confirmed the couple had been at breakfast when the blast occurred, but that’s all they knew. They advised that the hotel had been evacuated and explained that the restaurant had been very badly damaged. Our team informed the special risks insurer of the situation. The couple were high-net-worth individual policyholders and, as such, the insurer made a quick decision to deploy two members of our Crisis Response team to Sri Lanka.” As with many other assistance providers working in the aftermath of the tragedy, the company’s advice to tourists and expats in Sri Lanka immediately following the attacks was to make contact with family members via phone or email, to contact their Embassy and, if assistance was required, to contact their travel insurance provider.
Government-administered travel advisories were quick to advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka following the attacks. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Travel Advisory website, for example, states: “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.” The website also states that security has been stepped up across Sri Lanka and a State of Emergency remains in place. Emergency regulations have been put in place that ban the wearing of clothing or objects that conceal the face in such a way that prevents the wearer’s identification.
As many travel insurers link their cover to the advice of government travel advisories, the industry swiftly pointed travellers to relevant websites. In the UK, Carter said of insurers: “They were very quick to ensure that customers checked the FCO Travel Advisory website to keep updated on the situation and also made it very clear that their standard retail policies should no longer be purchased for travel to Sri Lanka due to the FCO travel advisories warning against travel to Sri Lanka.”
Voyager Insurance further explained that the FCO’s advice means that most mainstream travel insurance policies in the UK will now no longer cover anyone travelling to Sri Lanka, as it is a common exclusion in many standard travel insurance policies widely available to exclude cover to any country or region where the FCO advises against ‘all but essential travel’ or ‘all travel’.
Cover for travel to high-risk areas is, however, available, and with a rise in terrorist activity in tourist areas, it seems that this type of travel insurance may be more and more in demand. “It is a sad reality that terrorism is becoming an ever more common occurrence worldwide,” commented Carter.
Covered or not?
On 25 April, following the FCO’s advice, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) urged people booked to travel to Sri Lanka to talk to their travel agent, tour operator, airline or other travel provider regarding travel bookings. It stated: “If you are currently in Sri Lanka and want to curtail your visit and return early, your travel insurance should cover any extra costs associated with rearranging return flights.” It said that travellers should check if they have the necessary cover in place or speak to their travel insurer. Unfortunately, not all travellers had the cover they needed.
Sri Lanka´s tourism sector is a beacon of hope and unity. That´s why those who seek to divide us target hotels and other places where people come together
The Guardian, for example, reported on the case of a London family whose travel insurer refused to cover the losses related to a holiday to Sri Lanka that would need to be cancelled, but told them they would be uninsured if they went ahead. When Sam Williams asked his insurer, Ecclesiastical, how he should claim, he was informed that such cancellation cover was not offered as part of his annual policy. “It won’t cover the cancellation but has said that if we continue with the trip, we won’t be insured because the Foreign Office has advised us not to go,” he said. “It seems it wants it both ways. The company advised me to contact my package tour operator, but we have booked it all ourselves. It said it is getting quite a lot of calls about this. Isn’t this why we are told to buy travel insurance in the first place?” After Guardian Money intervened, the insurer agreed to cover Williams’ travel costs. “We have reviewed Mr Williams’ complaint and, due to the unique circumstances of this particular case, we have decided to pay the claim to cover his travel costs,” said a spokesman for the insurer. “We understand this has been a stressful time for Mr Williams and we want to do the right thing for him.”
As Carter told ITIJ, insurers have an obligation to travellers to fulfil: “There is an obligation for travel insurance brands and distributors [in the UK] under FCA guidelines and good practice to signpost customers to alternative travel insurance solutions if their product is not suitable for the traveller’s demands and needs. There is much more that can be done by travel insurance brands online and within their customer journeys and eligibility pop-ups to improve signposting and to redirect customers to specialist travel insurance solutions if their primary travel insurance solution is not suitable,” he said. “This is not only good practice under FCA guidelines, it is good for customer retention, it is good for brand and likewise good for business in that commission can also be earned by introducing customers to specialist solutions rather than losing the customer or even worse if the customer was to inadvertently purchase an unsuitable product.”
Tourism in trouble
A number of tour operators have cancelled bookings to Sri Lanka up to April 2020 and, inevitably, the attacks have had a negative impact on tourism to the country. Indeed, according to government figures, since the attacks there has been an 80-per-cent drop in tourist arrivals. This has destroyed the livelihoods of many Sri Lankans who depend on tourism, with the hotel industry suffering and a number of businesses having closed down. “It’s a big blow to the economy, as well as the tourism industry,” said Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. “For the economy to develop, it’s important tourism returns to where it was before the attacks.”
At a recent meeting called by Regional Director, International Congress and Convention Association Asia-Pacific, Noor Ahmad Hamid, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau Kumar De Silva stated that the country in general and the tourism industry in particular were fast returning to normal. He emphasised that measures had been taken to ensure the safety of visitors and that the country was open for business. Secretary-General of the UNWTO Zurab Pololikashvili called on the global community to offer its unwavering support to Sri Lanka through tourism and reiterated that hotels, beaches and other sites of interests are open as usual. “I have had the privilege of seeing Sri Lanka emerge as one of the world’s great tourism success stories, the country offers a warm welcome to visitors from all over the world, regardless of nationality or creed. In return, tourism has provided many Sri Lankans with secure jobs, helping whole communities grow and develop. Tourism has also been a major factor in the past decade of national reconciliation and contributed to bringing the people of Sri Lanka closer together,” he stated. “Sri Lanka’s tourism sector is a beacon of hope and unity. That’s why those who seek to divide us target hotels and other places where people come together. I offer my sincere condolences to those affected by the recent attacks, especially the families of the many victims.”
It is clear that the country is resilient and is doing its utmost to return to the thriving tourist destination it was before the devastating attacks. With time, support and hope the country can work towards rebuilding confidence in its tourism industry. “We cannot allow ourselves to become paralysed by fear,” said Gomes. “Nearly half a million families across the island depend on us for their daily living; the impact on our economy must be mitigated.”