Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Symphony hotels and tourism industry veteran, raised an interesting point the other day, which should generate a lot of debate and discussion. He told a marketing seminar that the country is struggling with a brand identity. “This is a country that’s struggling with (a) brand image. We have two names [...]

Business Times

Sri Lanka vs Ceylon


Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Symphony hotels and tourism industry veteran, raised an interesting point the other day, which should generate a lot of debate and discussion.

He told a marketing seminar that the country is struggling with a brand identity. “This is a country that’s struggling with (a) brand image. We have two names Ceylon and Sri Lanka,” he said, according to one newspaper report.

He is right. There is Ceylon Tea, which has been positioned for over a century and is a strong brand across the world, and Ceylon Spices, another strong brand. According to Cooray, a newcomer to branding local products is Ceylon Coffee.

So how do you go out into the world and position Sri Lanka under two different names – Ceylon and Sri Lanka –, is his dilemma.

This view comes at a time when Sri Lanka is preparing to launch a Rs. 270 million-worth global tourism campaign for which Cabinet approval has been granted. The industry has been pushing for a global promotion campaign but this has been delayed for a number of reasons – over the years – and lately due to the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. The change in the government in late 2019 further exacerbated the proposed global promotion campaign which has been in the works for the past five years.

As these thoughts went through my head, I heard the trio in conversation under the margosa tree. “Gas prashney loku prashnayak than Lankawe Hema dama, gas kaanduwak ho gas pipireemak thiyenawa (The gas issue has become a big issue in Sri Lanka. Every day there are gas leaks or explosions),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Wena ratakanam, amathi illala aswenawa. Wena amathilath kiyala thiyenawane egollo bayayi kiyala nida ganna gedera gas pipireemak wei kiyala (In any other country, the minister in charge would have resigned, Even some other ministers were saying they fear to sleep at night worried that their gas cylinder at home would explode,” noted Serapina.

“Mata hitha ganna be me wage thathvayak wena aanduwak moona dunna kalayak (I can’t think of a time when a government faced such a situation),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Their conversation continued, while the silence in the house was broken by the ringing of the phone. It was Kalabala Silva, the often-agitated academic, on the line. “I say, the country appears to have hit the bottom with all these problems. It is like a bottomless pit as a fresh issue emerges every day,” he said.

“The biggest problem today is the shortage of foreign currency with importers struggling to get dollars for, in most cases, essential import items,” I said.

“While there doesn’t seem to be an end to the crisis, the only confident person in Sri Lanka is Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal who says the situation can be overcome,” he said, adding that eminent economist W.A. Wijewardena has described Cabraal’s policies as “Cabraalnomics”.

Kalabala and I discussed a range of issues confronting the country including the fact that many young people are going abroad, sensing there is no future here. It doesn’t matter whether this is true or not; a large number of youngsters are keen to find jobs abroad.

Coming back to today’s topic, tourism; tourist arrivals are seen picking up slowly. For example, while arrivals started off as a trickle when the airports reopened in mid-January 2021 after a 10-month closure owing to the COVID-19 pandemic (1,682 arrivals in January), there has been a steady increase and 44,294 arrivals were recorded last month.

Furthermore Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando told a conference – discussing tourism trends – on Tuesday that she was confident that the country would record an average 100,000 arrivals per month next year, half of what was reached in 2018 which recorded 2.3 million arrivals.

Tourism is a crucial economic sector and the government needs to take the industry, which has been struggling since the emergence of the pandemic, seriously and offer whatever support it needs. Tourism benefits close to one million of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population and is a key foreign exchange earner. 2018, the best year so far for tourism, raked in US$4.4 billion in revenue, the third highest foreign exchange earner to the country after remittances by migrant workers and apparel exports.

In this context, industry officials were unhappy that the budget didn’t offer any benefits to the industry and were dismayed by the Finance Minister’s comments that the sector has not contributed financially to the economy.

According to a report in the Business Times, Past President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators Mahen Kariyawasam said “he (the Finance Minister) was saying we are spending the money the way we want to spend – actually that is the promotion money and it has to go through procurement procedures before it can be used”.

He noted that the Minister’s claims that the tourism industry has not contributed to the government is incorrect since “we have contributed Rs. 2 billion to the Treasury from the Tourism Development Levy (TDL) and from which money was also allocated for the construction of the Jaffna airport”.

While tourism has seen a pickup in recent times, it’s a long way before it can reach 2018 levels. Many hotels are still operating at very low levels with only weekends at full capacity being patronised by locals while there are occasional foreign guests.

Another problem is that travel agents who depend on
Sri Lankans going abroad on holiday or work are also struggling as new variants of COVID-19 keep popping up deterring travel plans. Industry officials said locals were avoiding travel overseas on group tours due to sudden border closures and only travelling as individuals or with families.

As I wound up my column, reflecting on the troubled times of the tourism industry, Kussi Amma Sera brought my second mug of tea saying, “Issarahata, te-koppayak uth hariganan wenna yanne (Even a cup of tea would be costly in the future).”

I nodded, remembering the recent data from research agency Advocata’s Bath Curry index which showed that retail prices had increased by nearly 45 per cent in November 2021, from two years ago in November 2019.

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