Sri Lanka

Tourism Recovery after a Terrorist Attack

Based on Learnings from Global Experience

On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, suicide bombers attacked 6 populated locations in Sri Lanka, unleashing widespread damage and fear. Three churches – St. Anthony’s church, l(ochchikade; St. Sebastian’s church, Katuwapitiya; and Zion church, Batticaloa – and three five-star hotels in Colombo – Cinnamon Grand; The Kingsbury; and Shangri-La – were targeted. The almost-simultaneous attacks resulted in 258 dead (as of 9 May) and at least 500 injured. Among the dead were 45 foreign nationals from India, China, the UK, the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Turkey, Japan, Portugal, Bangladesh, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.

As events unfolded, the attacks were linked to international terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), working through two local groups, National Thawheed Jamath (NT J) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). The two local groups have now been banned in Sri Lanka.

What does this mean for Sri Lankan Tourism?

Sri Lanka emerged from a bitter 30-year civil war between the Government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eel am (LTTE) in 2009; the country would have celebrated 10 years of relative peace in May 2019. A boom in infrastructure investment following the end of the war drove up the economy, which subsequently settled into a stable growth trajectory  (GDP growth was 3.7% in 2018).

The positive impact was felt particularly in tourism, which became the highest and fastest growing contributor to export earnings (recorded external earnings of USD 4.4 billion in 2018). Over 2 million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018 and the Government had estimated this to reach 4.5 million in 2020.

Given that three of the attacks directly targeted well-established hotels in the heart of Colombo, the ramifications for the tourism sector are expected to be long-term. Soon after the attacks, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera estimated the impact to the tourism industry at over USD 2 billion. Previous research has shown that, after terror attacks aimed at tourists, the recovery period (in terms of tourist numbers) can be relatively long – at around 2-6 years. This compares with a lower impact on arrivals from terrorism that does not specifically target tourists. Several countries have issued travel warnings, including China, which recorded the second-highest number of arrivals to Sri Lanka in 2018. Other key markets include the US, Australia and the UAE.

To find a way forward, MDF looked at the existing research and information on similar situations and how tourism destinations have recovered. Beyond the immediate aftermath of shock and dismay, an attack of this nature has a wide-ranging impact, seen among the various stakeholders involved.


This brief aims to deconstruct the tourism impact, provide some guidance on what steps the private sector can take, and outline the broad priorities that Sri Lanka needs to address in order to re-emerge on the global tourism map.

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