ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54
Financial Times  

World’s top tour operator says Sri Lanka among its best markets

Bucking the trends

Nick Hughes

One of the world’s biggest travel groups is bucking the trends in Sri Lankan tourism. While others are wary or hurt by travel advisories, Kuoni UK is showing a 30 percent growth in revenue from the Sri Lanka market, prompting a senior Kuoni official to say, with conviction, “We are here to stay.”

In a message that would be comforting to the travel and tour industry and government efforts to market a destination which has a lot of negative press, Nick Hughes, Managing Director, Kuoni Travel Ltd UK, who was visiting Colombo last week, said: “We are in it for the long haul. We have been here for many years and see great potential in investing in joint marketing programmes. We bring a quality clientele and are now planning on a higher quality clientele,”

Speaking exclusively to The Sunday Times FT during a short visit to Colombo, Mr Hughes said Sri Lanka is the number one destination for weddings worldwide and the number two destination for honeymooners. “What is important is that weddings are planned well in advance and even with the difficulties you have, the British consumer is prepared to put their money where their mouths are for a crucial event like weddings,” he said, adding that violence happens across the world and doesn’t deter the British traveller.

During his visit, the Kuoni UK chief met Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda and sealed a pact with SriLankan Airlines for a direct non-stop flight to the Maldives from Britain for Kuoni clients. Kuoni is among Britain’s biggest tour operator to Sri Lanka and probably the oldest, operating in this market for the past 40 years. Sri Lanka was featured on the cover of Kuoni’s 2008 winter brochure which is the company’s main catalogue of global destinations. The 2009 brochure has dedicated 24 pages to Sri Lanka.

Mr Hughes said Sri Lanka was the first market he was visiting after, taking up his current position, nine months back. “Why Sri Lanka? For a number of reasons .. one being we have signed a deal with SriLankan Airlines to provide us with a non stop direct, scheduled flight to the Maldives. This is the first non-stop scheduled flight to the UK and back from the Maldives. Some 20-30 years back Kuoni was the first to open the UK market to the Maldives and now we are the first with a scheduled flight,” he said. The Kuoni UK chief said Sri Lanka has showed excellent growth and the company has good relations with its partner, John Keells. “We work with some 50 hotels in Sri Lanka. We have eight dedicated tours or excursions in Sri Lanka,” he said. Responding to a question about the impact of a global economic crisis, he said the UK market is having problems like the credit crunch and the housing bubble, but in this context “(for us) to achieve 30 percent year on year growth in Sri Lanka is quite creditable.”

On the fuel crisis which is impacting across the world, he said budget airlines are having a tough time while even premium airlines like Virgin are considering an extra surcharge on premium seats. Overall the travel sector in the UK is flat while some top operators are down on business. He said they were not so badly affected partly because “ours is not a mass market but catering to an upmarket clientele with tailor-made holidays.”

Mr Hughes and Minister Moragoda discussed a range of isues. “It’s not an easy environment here, what with the fuel crisis and the uncertain situation. One of the things we discussed was that the political difficulties hasn’t put off (travel) bookings due to some of these incidents. The British consumer perhaps is prepared to look beyond that. This is not the only country in the world to have these problems.”

He said the Tourism Ministry is looking for opportunites for public-private initiatives and ‘we have done this in marketing and the brochures (last year) paid off.” He said the minister had encouraged Kuoni to take a long-term, five-year view on how to position Sri Lanka in the world and on what makes Sri Lanka different from other destinations. Mr Hughes said Sri Lanka is a very price competitive market where one gets good value for money and a high standard of service. He said there is a need to ensure some discipline to avoid flooding the market with cheap tourism. “Standards should be high and the authorities should take a long term view to maintain a certain quality of tourist who will look after the environment and look for standards.”

Kuoni UK recently launched its flagship retail outlet at Kensington High Street in London which is a prime area and this office is selling more that three of the outlets in London (put together) that have been there for decades because of the new ‘experience’ of travel offered to clients. Mr Hughes said Kuoni is bringing down 120 of the best performing travel agents in the UK to Sri Lanka next October on an education and familiarisation tour.


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