SriLankan to maximise Indian tourist potential

COLOMBO, June 21 (Reuters) - India has replaced Britain as the biggest source of passenger traffic for war-weary SriLanka’s national carrier, a SriLankan Airlines official said on Friday.

Visitors from Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour hit 7,600 in May-the highest for a month and more than double last year’s monthly average. It was spurred by heavy discounts on airline tickets after a dismal year for tourism in 2001 due to a rebel attack at the country’s international airport.

Tourism officials said they expected a rebound of 10 percent in total arrivals this year to about 370,000 due to the ceasefire between the government and the LTTE.

"SriLankan Airlines now sees India more than ever as a tourism generating market," said G. T. Jayaseelan, head of commercial operations at SriLankan Airlines, partly owned by Dubai’s Emirates airlines.

He was speaking to reporters to announce the launch of flights to Bangalore in India on July 15, the airline’s first major expansion after chopping seven cities from a list of 35 due to the rebel attack at the airport last July.

The suicide attack destroyed four of Sri Lanka’s 12-strong Airbus fleet and sent tourists scrambling for cover.

Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka plummeted 15 per cent last year from 2000, and were down 26 per cent in the first five months this year compared to the same period in 2001.

Arrivals from Britain have dropped by more than half to 3,000 in May from an average of 7,000. Total tourist arrivals in May this yeara was 26,600, while arrivals in 2001 totalled 336,000.

Arrivals to the country were also supported this year by a major promotional drive by the airline and the Sri Lanka Tourist Board that offered an extra ticket and room for tourists arriving from selected cities to Sri Lanka. The "one-for-one" offer ends in June.

Jayaseelan said about one-third of the visitors from India to Sri Lanka were businessmen. About 95 per cent of visitors from India travel by SriLankan Airlines.

"The business-to-business contacts are very strong, particularly from the information technology industry," he said. A large number of information technology companies in India are based in Bangalore.

Sri Lankan officials said the airline was planning to resume flights to Germany in October and would add an Airbus A320 to its fleet in July.

The airline, which made a loss of $71 million for the year to March 2000, plans to increase the frequency of flights to six cities it flies to in India later this year.

Sri Lankan has said it could post a net profit this year if tourist arrivals continued to improve. It has not released results for year to March 2002.