Sri Lanka was considered a must visit destination in 2019 but it took just a matter of months before travellers started to leave and some never to return. The industry is likely to see a revival in the summer of 2020 with hopes that the ‘must visit’ tag would take everyone through this bitter cold [...]

Business Times

Struggling to retain SL tourism’s charm


Sri Lanka was considered a must visit destination in 2019 but it took just a matter of months before travellers started to leave and some never to return. The industry is likely to see a revival in the summer of 2020 with hopes that the ‘must visit’ tag would take everyone through this bitter cold season.

Tourists on a banana boat

Most in the industry believe the next summer is likely to spring hope with a revival in the industry while others have pushed it further to next winter. Industry’s casual staff laid off, guides uncertain of their future and some of the financial issues still lingering the industry desperately needs a revival strategy through a targeted push in promotion that will see the numbers flying if carried out appropriately.

Do they know it’s Sri Lanka?

Newbie and change maker, Santani Resorts Founder and CEO Vickum Nawagamuwage believes that it’s about strategy and having brands pointing out that: “It’s not about repositioning our branding but to start one in itself.”

Noting that during the crisis period it was found that the highest search on the Internet was for Sri Lanka, he points out that this clearly means that most people did not know where this country was located.

However, “We think we are big and the world knows us – honestly we don’t have a brand and even some in the industry are not aware of this.”

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has not changed and “our assets and our attractions and beaches and mountains have not changed, in effect the value that we can provide is still the same.”

Mr. Nawagamuwage explained that since some hotels don’t have a global brand they have no option but to go down on the rates – and even for the others to increase rates they require more strategy.

“We need to leverage on the fact that people were searching about Sri Lanka and find which demographics were searching about us and create targeted messaging for people,” he said.

Washing elephants at Pinnawela.

In fact even from the UK it was noted that Sri Lanka receives only about 0.52 per cent of the UK travel market. UK is one of Sri Lanka’s traditional markets alongside Germany and France.

Even Santani Resorts and Spa had slowed down soon after the Easter bombings but this winter they have gone full and are now looking at expanding globally and locally in the next five years.

Veteran hotelier Chairman Jetwing Symphony Hiran Cooray still believes our marketing and promotional campaigns need to spearhead to take the country forward as these are lacking.

“We need to do marketing and promotions overseas in such a way that Sri Lanka gets back to the way we were – we need to promote the good of Sri Lanka,” he said insisting that: “We have a problem with our country branding.”

Mr. Cooray explained the confusion with Ceylon and Sri Lanka as the country markets itself under different names for different products. Ceylon Cinnamon, Ceylon Tea but then we are at the same time also Sri Lanka Cricket and Sri Lanka Tourism!

“We are still going with Ceylon and Sri Lanka and we need to sort that out,” he said, pointing out also that it’s important to position the destination and market the best product through targeted marketing.

As backpackers will anyway find us and come, it is the high net worth individuals that need to be attracted, he noted.

As a company, Jetwing through its own representatives overseas and working online and working with international media, invite foreign journalists to Sri Lanka so they are “doing whatever” possible to attract tourists to the country.

“This is one of the nicest compact countries in the world and so we need to communicate this to the travellers,” Mr. Cooray said believing a turnaround to happen by April 2020.

April 2019 and its aftermath

The previous government worked with the tourism industry for a financial package for all those affected including guides and staff but more needs to be done as the industry is still fighting hard to come to terms with its first ever direct attack by terrorism last April.

Tourist Hotels Association President Sanath Ukwatte speaking with the Business Time said that about 90 per cent of the financial matters were worked out and they want this package extended by one more year as the recovery has been delayed due to the absence of systematic marketing and promotions so therefore “we are requesting the government for this”.

He noted that while some hotels have retrenched; some others are trying to maintain the staff; and even others like the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have already closed down their operations due to the lack of visitors to the destination.

Mr. Ukwatte, who is also the Chairman of Mt. Lavinia Hotel, said, “We sent some of the trainees out but we are keeping the main cadre because business volumes are not picking up yet especially in the city and immediate suburbs.”

However, in the south, he explained hotels have quoted “very low rates but occupancy is down”.

Under the circumstances the industry is pinning its hopes on the new head of tourism’s state bodies Ms. Kimarli Fernando to deliver on the much awaited global and other promotional and marketing campaigns in a bid to revive the industry which is fighting hard to survive even as most are without jobs and unable to earn a decent wage to get by.

“We are hoping that the new head (of Sri Lanka Tourism) will deliver the much awaited campaign, and she’s very positive,” Mr. Ukwatte said.

He pointed to the next winter to bring in the expected recovery noting that since they work in advance and one year ahead it is possible to state that summer would be the low season and unless they have Indian and short haul markets to concentrate on the key European traffic is mainly due in the winter.

China, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest markets, has been slow since the attacks and despite the government’s push for a media tour of the country the numbers have not pulled through yet.

Mr. Ukwatte noted that they will be meeting with the new Finance Minister in early January to discuss the current issues concerning the industry.

The April winds swept away everyone with it not just hoteliers but also the tour operators.

“Tour operators were hit very badly and the process has been rather slow so we have asked the new government to give us an extension of the moratorium for at least another one year,” Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators Association  (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasam told the Business Times.

Inspite of the numbers that are showcased, he noted that a Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority’s (SLTDA) survey has indicated that the formal sector tourism has not picked up yet.

“The figures moving are from the informal sector with those booking online so the business of the tour operators is pretty low,” the SLAITO chief explained.

The tour operators are also asking for assistance for tour operators under the US$10 campaign that did not get underway although it was proposed.

Under this proposal if the tour operators bring in $10 then the SLTDA will give $10 out of the Tourism Development Levy (TDL) funding for which the tour operators have to bring in 250 persons per year to qualify for that and they should work with a local agent qualified to do so.

The previous cabinet rejected the proposal and authorities are likely to resubmit the paper to the present Cabinet. Authorities are currently working on preparing this paper, Mr. Kariyawasam said.

The call even from the tour operators is for a consumer promotion to attract more tourists to the country. “We need consumer promotion,” the SLAITO head said.

Destination Marketing Companies (DMCs) have not carried out any new staff recruitments and are compelled to reduce staff like casual workers, Mr. Kariyawasama said.

He added, “We hope to see a slight increase after January and February in the bookings and so hope we can activate faster.”

Another campaign Sri Lanka stalled was the Rs.100 million push that was to be allocated to each market although it received cabinet approval for which the industry believes they will be able to see it kick off.

In addition, the industry also requested the government to consider extending the free visa to all 42 countries already carried out by a further period of one year, Mr. Kariyawasam said.

“We have received positive vibes from the government,” he noted. The free visa issuance to travellers from 42 countries will lapse on January 31.

Guides and Chauffeur guides are affected due to this issue as they don’t have much work but by summer the situation should improve, he noted.

The industry has already met the two new ministers, the chairperson of the tourism bodies and the two new relevant ministries.

New plans

The new authorities are planning to bring about the much-needed revival to the tourism industry and one of the key concerns on bureaucracy that delays programmes is to be addressed under the new government.

New Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism Kimarli Fernando said that they were looking at addressing the concerns on bureaucracy and bringing about the promotional campaigns.

She pointed out that this would involve appointing a local marketing agency, public relations partners overseas and destination marketing companies or representatives in about 15-20 key markets through an open tender.

Numbers game

Post attacks the total visitor arrivals has been down by 71 per cent in May at 37,802, down by 57 per cent in June at 63,072; a 47 per cent dip in July with arrivals at 115,701 and a 28 per cent drop in August compared to the same period last year at 143,587, the industry report produced by Tourism Alliance released titled Resilience Action Plan stated.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the least resilient markets were China (-76.5 per cent), Saudi Arabia (-67.5 per cent), Netherlands (-54.1 per cent) and the UK (-51 per cent).

International direct aviation seat capacity also reduced by 13 per cent and China was down by 32 per cent, the report noted.

September recorded a drop by 27.2 per cent and October by 22.5 per cent while November was down only by 9.5 per cent.

In November Europe was the largest source of tourist traffic accounting for 51 per cent of the total arrivals in that month. Asia and Pacific accounted for 42 per cent, America 5 per cent, West Asia 2 per cent and Africa 0.5 per cent.

The dominating markets for the year were India, UK, China, Germany and France from January to November this year. India was the largest source market accounting for 18 per cent of the total traffic during this period while UK accounted for 11 per cent, China 9 per cent, Germany 7 per cent and France 5 per cent.

With the year closing off in a couple of days the tourism industry needs to head for promotional campaigns to boost arrivals and a re-look at branding Sri Lanka.

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