Raising The Level

Tourism levels may be low now, but bit by bit, visitors and business will return to Sri Lanka. Much like in the fable of the crow and the pitcher, a thoughtful approach, clever actions and perseverance may lead the way out of this drought.

Aesop’s fable about the crow and the water jar may suggest a way forward for tourism in Sri Lanka.

The goal of this article is not to talk about the short term, about issues of immediate financial difficulties, travel advisories, financial relief or low-season promotion strategies, important and urgent though these are. It is to look beyond and ask how this time can be used to develop the industry into a better version of its current self. In this regard, we collected opinions from several leading industry figures and asked them, where do the opportunities lie?

Johanne Jayaratne

Jayaratne held the position of Managing Director of the SLTPB until May, when he took on the role of Chairman of the SLTDA. Prior to joining the SLTPB, Jayaratne served as Executive Director of the Airport and Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. He sees an opportunity to strengthen the systems in place to create a more solid footing for when visitors return

Illustration Johanne Jayaratne tourism recovery Sri LankaLong term, I want to make use of this time to strengthen three key areas.

First, I want to set up a complete automation of the SLDTA registration and certification process for stakeholders. There should be minimum physical intervention involved, other than the physical inspection of a premises. The current system is a little archaic and needs to be automated to expedite the process.  ICT will play a huge role in that process.

Second, to look at resorts in areas like Passikudah and bring them up to mark. We can assist them in improving their business models and infrastructure, etc.

Third is the enforcement area. It’s estimated that the informal sector accounts for around 65% in Sri Lanka – that’s a huge number. We want to bring them into the fold and get them registered. Now, with the government’s financial relief package, the informal sector has a definite incentive to be formalised. Bringing them into the fold means they have support to continue with their business operations and there’s a regulatory framework at play.

There will be no penalties for previously unregistered accommodations that come forward and want to register to take advantage of the incentives offered. Of course, bringing them into the fold will give the government an additional tax return, which will help offset some of the financial relief packages they’re putting in place; it’s a nice give and take.

I really see an opportunity, a silver lining if you will. If we can put our house in order and put all these things in place, we can definitely offer a much more sophisticated product and service to guests coming to Sri Lanka in the future.

Speaking of, I’m really keen to move away from using the label of ‘tourist’ for visitors coming into the country. I want to replace it over the next couple of months and start talking about ‘guests’ rather than ‘tourists’ and numbers. Sri Lanka is known for its hospitality. When people come to Sri Lanka, they are guests of this large family; that’s what we need to promote. Changing the rhetoric will have a subtle impact on all the interactions in the industry.

 

Malik Fernando

Fernando is the Managing Director of Resplendent Ceylon and a founding force behind the new Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance. Dilmah Tea’s Relais & Chateaux luxury resort circuit in Sri Lanka includes Tea Trails, Cape Weligama and Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

Looking at the longer term, we want to take advantage of the outpouring of sympathy for Sri Lanka. There is a lot of support from overseas companies, not only in terms of security and advice, but also with positioning and marketing.

There has been frustration in the industry over a lack of proper promotion to attract high-end travellers. Going forward, if things get back on track, this frustration may still be there, and may even be exaggerated because higher end travellers could stay away longer.

We have established the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance to be a lightning rod within the areas that we (the industry) can control, to improve both communication and the quality of the product. The opportunity is there for us to get together as an industry, understand how fragile we are, see how we could drive a consensus on the kind of product we want to be, and to look at specific positioning rather than the mass market.

I firmly believe that we shouldn’t cheapen the destination, because the Sri Lanka product hasn’t changed. Luxury and high-end is the future. ‘Bucket-list’ travellers pay a key role, but a market based solely on them is not sustainable. More knowledgeable, environmentally conscious travellers are more likely to reinvest and return year on year. It’s so much easier for a destination to start aspirationally positioned at the top and move down, rather than start at a 2-star level and try to move up.

Until the advisories are removed and people are comfortable enough to come back, it’s going to be difficult. But once we overcome those, it’s a huge opportunity for us as an industry to do some soul searching.

Love Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance was established in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks by Malik Fernando and a group of industry professionals. Their immediate goal was to create a single point of contact for travellers and trade organisations alike, populated with accurate, up to date information, and to push the message that Sri Lanka is open and safe.

The ‘Love Sri Lanka’ website and social media channels were created as a means to connect and share this messaging with the world. The alliance is grappling for a solution where the private sector comes together and channels good ideas forward and, by doing so, develops a more powerful voice.

 

Vickum Nawagamuwage

Nawagamuwage, the CEO/Founder of Santani Wellness Resort & Spa, near Kandy, believes that, ultimately, all press is good press. The key is to use it to connect with potential future visitors.

The bottom line is that we can’t let go of the awareness Sri Lanka received as a result of the attacks. We need to keep it going until we are ready to welcome people back. It is not about driving traffic for the next week, but creating engagement that means something when things are okay again. Sri Lanka should be the first destination in people’s minds.

vickum nawagamuwage Sri Lanka tourism must leverage press coverage for recovery

Sri Lanka has received much more publicity now than it has ever before, even during the war. This was an international issue, a shared issue with the world, and it received significant front page coverage. Obviously, this news was tragic. At the same time, news is still news, and I am sure that more people know about Sri Lanka now than compared to before 21 April.

We need to leverage this news coverage and use this opportunity positively, to create a long-term emotional attachment with people. That way, when the country is ready and people are thinking about their next holiday, Sri Lanka is already at the back of their minds.

To do this, we need to have stories about Sri Lanka in the international press throughout the recovery period. It needs to be done subtly. It’s not about trying to push tourism too much – that might give an impression that we care about our bottom lines more than the safety of tourists – rather it’s about long-term client engagement.

We can keep Sri Lanka in people’s consciousness through articles on other topics: the recovery, our people, property, surfing and wellness for example, and gradually feed in little bits of tourism and the destination as well. People who didn’t know about Sri Lanka before will read these articles and learn about the country, and this information will remain in their minds.

Over time, we can slowly change the narrative from negative to positive. We can create emotional connections with people who will be our visitors of the future.

That’s a positive thing we can gain out of all this, and the publicity we’ve received. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The next step is to leverage it.