This weekend, terrorist bombers struck churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, causing more than three hundred deaths and hundreds more injuries. The attacks, on Easter morning, shattered the peace in the tropical country.
The bombings were devastating. The death toll is shocking, and the attack on religious sites on an important holiday makes it particularly jarring.
To understand the true scope of the disaster, however, it is necessary to step back and consider how the attacks will impact Sri Lanka’s brand and the country’s future.
Sri Lanka is a country with a long, proud history. It is a land with jungles and elephants, ancient temples and beautiful tea plantations. Many years ago I was lucky enough to spend a summer living with a Sri Lankan family in the small town of Horana, outside of Colombo. It was a summer of wonder as I learned about the country and its people.
For much of the 1990s and 2000s, however, Sri Lanka was wracked by civil war, a fierce battle between the government and the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group based in the northern regions. There were suicide bombings, assassinations and, in one terrible day, an attack on Sri Lanka’s main airport when rebels destroyed much of the national airline’s fleet of planes including an A340 and two A330s.
As a result, Sri Lanka’s brand became firmly associated with violence and danger. The country had little appeal as a tourist destination, attracting only the most diehard adventurers. Families stayed far away. Businesses were hesitant to invest as well.
In 2009, the terrible civil war came to an end. As peace returned, the country slowly started rebuilding its brand. Of course, perceptions change slowly; there was no rush of tourists. People didn’t quickly think, “Oh, Sri Lanka is now safe! Let’s cancel the trip to the French Riviera and head off to Sri Lanka instead.”
It has only been in the last two or three years that Sri Lanka has started rebounding in a meaningful way. The country was just starting the shed its negative perceptions. As a few early travelers returned with stories of a peaceful, beautiful country, other people began to reconsider. Maybe Sri Lanka was a country to visit, after all. I’ve been thinking of returning to see the family I stayed with years back.
This weekend’s attacks will shatter Sri Lanka’s brand, reminding people that the country has a history of violence and danger. Tourism and investment will slump. Rebuilding brand perceptions will be a long, slow process.
Sri Lanka will have much more trouble than New Zealand because the countries have a very different history. New Zealand’s brand is aligned with feelings of safety and security. As a result, I suspect people will quickly discount the recent bombing. People may think, “Is New Zealand now a dangerous country? No, that was the work of an isolated disturbed individual.” Sri Lanka will face a much more formidable branding problem, and not just because the attacks were clearly the work of a network of people, not just an individual.
As tragic as the attacks were on Sunday, the brand damage they will do to this jewel of an island is even more profound.