ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
Financial Times  

Tough times don’t last, tough people do

By Antony Montha

The golden beaches are not quite crawling with tourists. The verdant hills are alive with the sound of birdsong, not foreign accents. At the smaller resorts, accommodation is available at a fraction of what it used to cost.

After a promising start, the number of inbound tourists has been on the wane this year. Considering that tourism is Sri Lanka’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, this has resulted in furrowed brows in some corridors of power.

When written in Chinese, however, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: one represents danger, the other signifies opportunity... So, undaunted by the immediate danger, the Tourism Board (SLTB) is using this opportunity to “get our PR (public relations) act together and get our infrastructure right in terms of ability to deliver.”

Renton de Alwis, SLTB’s Chairman, elaborates: “The strap-line ‘A land like no other’ could sprout extensions like ‘Beaches like no other’, ‘Hills like no other’ and even ‘Rain like no other’... One prominent target would be the older population/ seniors - They have funds, and they can travel any time without waiting for school holidays.”

A foreign tourist is a foreign passport-holder who spends more than a day in the country he is visiting. More than 70% of such visitors to Sri Lanka come on holiday or for leisure.The Ministry of Tourism has started consultative meeting with stakeholders, the media and similar knowledgeable persons, to share developments and chart a new course. Addressing the second such meeting last week, Additional Secretary George Michael revealed that advisory panels have been created for Hotel School operations, niche tourism products, cruise tourism and domestic tourism.

“Domestic tourism fills hotel rooms during difficult times, when foreign occupancy is down”, explained Michael. The strategy appears to be paying dividends: Local guest nights have increased this year, even as foreign guest nights have declined. Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha talked about the high-potential Middle Eastern market. With 45 flights per week, airline connectivity to this region is second only to India. Vipula Wanigasekera, General Manager – Sri Lanka Convention Bureau, spoke of the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) segment that represents 12% of arrivals. This is an upmarket segment because it spends four to five times as much as an average holiday maker does.

Indians comprise the highest number of tourists to Sri Lanka. They are compulsive shoppers, spending as much as 33% of their budget on shopping (average, all countries: 21%). The SLTB is planning to launch a mega promotional campaign during July 2007 to tap this market. It is estimated that 16 million Indians will travel out during 2010.

Sri Lanka lacks resources to spend big bucks – like the two million Euros spent by India on the ‘Incredible India’ promotion. Hence, innovative ideas come to the fore. Niche tourism, for example, implies Sri Lankan tourism with a distinct flavour – like having ayurvedic doctors to explain why gotukola is good for you!

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.