The Sri Lankan social media landscape has seen some significant swings between highs and lows over the last two years. At times, social media in Sri Lanka has been tarred with one brush on concerns around spreading disinformation and inciting ethnic violence. Shutting down social media platforms had become the immediate reflex reaction from the government to assert control over communications platforms. However, what had been seen as a liability and risk to be managed has become a strong tool during a most challenging time.
On 21 April, Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka witnessed the worst terrorist attack since the end of its long and bloody civil war. Islamist terrorists launched a coordinated attack on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 people, including 42 foreign nationals. This resulted in a number of nations advising against visiting Sri Lanka, essentially crippling its crucial tourism industry. The $4 billion (USD) industry, which accounts for about 5 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total economy and almost 12 per cent of the total workforce employment, was in freefall in the aftermath of the attacks.
The government’s response was to immediately impose a 10-day nation-wide social media ban on platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Having also imposed a similar ban in 2018 following violent riots, there were already growing concerns about the role of social media in Sri Lanka. With the government backlash against social media platforms escalating, the odds of changing tack and collaborating on a campaign to save Sri Lanka’s tourism industry seemed vanishingly small. And yet, that is exactly what has come to pass over recent months.
96 per cent of all active internet users in Sri Lanka hold Facebook accounts, relying on the platform to consume news and stay connected with friends and family around the world. Following a 2018 social media ban, Facebook began working closely with local authorities to promote and improve civic participation by teaching them effective ways to use the platform. Trainings and consultations offered by Facebook to government organisations became a cornerstone in fostering a less adversarial and more collaborative relationship.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter bombings, resuscitating the tourism industry became a national priority. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) led on efforts to assure the global community that Sri Lanka was safe to visit. With a digitally savvy population that already had established networks with the ubiquitous Sri Lankan diaspora, it was necessary to leverage these existing connections to get that message across.
MOFA thus developed a digital strategy, coining the hashtag #SriLankaIsSafetoTravel to spread the message that Sri Lanka was ready to welcome tourists again. Facebook was chosen as the ideal platform to spread this message, following the effective outreach to civil service organisations. MOFA introduced the hashtag through a series of short video interviews with international travellers reaffirming Sri Lanka’s safety.
This was in turn shared via Facebook by embassies and missions spanning Vietnam, Poland and Kuwait. The embedded video posts were well received, generating significant traffic and engagement. As the hashtag became more popular, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic network proactively created videos to share on their own official Facebook accounts.
The successful pick up of #SriLankaIsSafetoTravel, and the use of embedded videos, allowed government and diplomatic channels to adopt a more informal and personal tone.
Call in the bloggers
The message that Sri Lanka was once again a safe destination was effectively disseminated via formal channels, but informal channels were also needed to reach potential travellers.
In 2017, the Sri Lankan Tourism Bureau (SLTB) organised the inaugural visiting bloggers programme, inviting international bloggers and social media influencers to tour and promote Sri Lanka to a wider audience. The programme was a success, resulting in a combined social media reach of over ten million views. SLTB reached out to this network of bloggers in 2019 for help in spreading the message that Sri Lanka was once again safe for travel. 22 bloggers representing key markets in Europe and America, with a combined social media following of seven million, toured Sri Lanka to help promote the country as a safe, friendly destination. Facebook and Instagram content shared the #SriLankaIsSafetoTravel hashtag, generating almost five million initial views. The message that Sri Lanka was safe was now no longer just shared by the Sri Lankan Government, it had become a global message intended for a global audience.
Better with friends
A global response from celebrities and social media influencers was an unexpected boost for Sri Lankan tourism and helped create a new Bring a Friend Home (BAFH) campaign.
Cinnamon Hotels was responsible for launching the BAFH campaign, asking Sri Lankans (and expatriate residents of Sri Lanka) to invite friends and family living abroad to visit the country and take advantage of attractive discount packages. Invitations were shared over Facebook and WhatsApp.
Bollywood star and former Miss Sri Lanka Jacqueline Fernandez was the first invited guest to help kick-start the BAFH campaign. A Sri Lankan herself, Ms Fernandez’s visit was intended to create much-needed hype around the campaign and push crucial messages around Sri Lanka’s safety and attractiveness as a tourist destination. And as an Instagram influencer with more than 32 million followers, Ms Fernandez’s involvement generated exceptional engagement around the world.
Following a high-profile launch, it is now up to Sri Lankans to join the effort in inviting friends to their country to help lift the recovering tourism industry.
A friendly reception
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is showing gradual signs of recovery with a strong uptick in winter bookings for 2019. The industry may only have to weather a 10 per cent fall in tourist arrivals in 2019, as opposed to the more than 30 per cent drop that had been forecasted.
Sri Lanka’s digital strategy to revive its tourism industry might have been multi-faceted, but the narrative has stayed constant – Sri Lanka is a safe, welcoming and friendly destination. With a clear key message to unite around, Sri Lanka’s public and private sector took the initiative to promote critical information through both formal government channels and public-friendly informal channels.
A clear call to action for Sri Lankan citizens made the effort a truly national effort that combined the personal element of friendship with an international digital communications campaign.
Sri Lanka’s decision to embrace a digital strategy focused on social media platforms was key. The ability to disseminate concise messages swiftly to a wide audience segment has both up and downsides. Sri Lanka’s experience offers lessons for utilising social media platforms effectively, as opposed to policing or restricting them outright.