Sri Lanka’s tourism, a victim of off-season misnomer | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka’s tourism, a victim of off-season misnomer

Pool without guests
Pool without guests

Sri Lanka’s Tourism industry is suffering from a drastic drop in tourist arrivals - to such an extent it had not experienced in recent years. Practically all hotels in the country, irrespective of their classifications are greatly affected as a result.

Mostly affected are the hotels along the Eastern coastal belt where the occupancy rate of which has dropped to below 10 percent, according to well-informed industry sources.


Beach with empty chairs

This low occupancy rate, unprecedented in recent years defies explanation at first glance. The areas such as Passekudah, Kalkudah and Nilaveli along the Eastern coastal belt have seen significant new developments such as high end 5-star hotels, some of them, very attractive Boutique style.

However, despite December being a much preferred travel period for Europeans wanting to escape harsh winter conditions, all these hotels have so far recorded an unexpected low occupancy in December last year. Even the two to four-star hotels and guest houses face the same situation.

A hotel with one guest to 90-strong staff

The Manager, Operations of a 5 star hotel Mohammed Arshad, 27 years, employed from its inception in 2011, told me, that the low occupancy rate in his hotel is similar to that experienced by all other hotels in the area.

“It’s a pity that this situation has arisen so soon after the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority set up a regional office in Passekudah to maintain a closer rapport with hoteliers here. The authorities of this office have been easily accessible and supportive from inception,” Arshad said.

On my recent visit to the hotel overlooking a calm ocean and comprising 37 state-of-the-art boutique rooms, a beautiful swimming pool and a serene beach front had one guest only for the 90-strong staff.

The calm ocean was inviting a swim and the sky was a blue canopy enlivened with some scattered clouds. And there was hardly any sign of a weather pattern which could justify the term ‘OFF SEASON’, which sadly keeps travellers away.

Commenting on the prevailing weather, the hotel manager said, “This fair weather is quite in keeping with the general weather pattern in November and December unfortunately described as the Off Season. Even in January we have fair weather except for a few days of showery weather.”

He agreed that it is a misnomer to call the November -December period as the OFF SEASON. So it appears that it is the myth of an off season circulated in the countries in the West that keeps away tourists from Sri Lanka in November and December.

High season and off-season myth perpetuated over years

International tour operators in general introduce the island of Sri Lanka as a destination with two six month-seasons, namely, the High Season and the Off Season. This means that this country is being promoted as a tourist destination for only the high season - a period of six months. And November and December come under the Off Season!

The outcome of this myth of a so called Off Season is that the country’s hoteliers are compelled to conduct stiff room rate negotiations with the International Tour Operators, who are trying to pick the best possible bargains for their clients.

As a result, Sri Lanka’s Hotel Industry falls under tremendous pressure to accept low room rates or to face zero or next to zero occupancy.

The experience, which my colleagues in the Eastern Coastal areas are going through from November to May is similar to what we in the Western, North Western and Southern parts of the country have to put up with thanks to this OFF SEASON MYTH.

Personal experience

I have been a hotelier operating a middle size3/4-star Beach Resort in Marawila, Puttalam District in the North Western Province. Our marketing generally does not focus mainly on leisure tourism, a segment which very sensitively considers weather as a main determinant for travelling or not.

Since 90 percent of our clients are sports tourists the weather does not apply heavily as a deciding factor for them to select Sri Lanka as a travel destination.

However, it is my over 30 year-direct experience, despite sports tourists having a different motive for their visit to this country, I have been frequently asked whether May, June, July and August - these are the main Summer Holiday months in Germany - are okay for them go about in this country given the monsoonal weather.

Frankly speaking, during the 30 year - operation of my resort in Marawila I had no occasion where I had to disappoint any of my clients on account of bad weather due to the monsoonal factor. Strong winds for 2 or 3 days accompanied by heavy rains have always accounted for the monsoonal weather pattern.

The ocean turns rough and turbulent causing tidal waves in contrast to calm seas that obtain from November to March. Flies and mosquitoes are blown away by strong winds which is a veritable blessing.

The Oxford dictionary describes Monsoon as a seasonally prevailing wind in the regions of South and South East Asia, blowing from the south-west between May and September and bringing rain (the wet monsoon), or from the north-east between October and April (the dry monsoon).

Other dictionaries describe the Monsoon as a weather occurrence with torrential rains and a strong wind pattern, and travelling to these regions during these times is discouraged.

As a result, Sri Lanka was promoted for decades as a favourable tourist destination only for the six month - high season. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons, that Sri Lanka’s Tourism Industry is far under-performing compared to that in the neighbouring Asian countries as the chart shows.

Sri Lanka is struggling to surpass the two million annual arrival figure, whereas the other five South/East Asian countries have achieved this goal long before.

Thailand and Malaysia are generating some26 to 32 million visitors annually, a dream figure where Sri Lanka is concerned.

Both countries have been heavily promoted by way of a single favourable destination. The slogan for example used in the Malaysian tourist promotion campaign ‘Malaysia truly Asia’ is being dinned into ears by all major news channels such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera among others. Malaysia as a country worth visiting is being advertised extensively.

Malaysia’s tourism promotion is laudable and their results are outstanding, since it is a challenging job to promote a predominantly Muslim country as a destination for western tourists in particular. Malaysia’s tourism promotion is based on branding the country as a whole.

Sri Lanka’s two million to Vietnam’s 10 million tourist arrivals - a direct comparison

For Sri Lanka, a meaningful comparison with Vietnam seems to be justified, since both countries have some kind of similarities in their historical experience and the subsequent challenging task for its tourism development during post- war times.

Vietnam is a communist country which faced a devastating war with the United States of America over many years. Millions of bombs had been unloaded unto Vietnam wreaking devastation and destruction in major cities and the rural agricultural regions.

The US Air Force unloaded thousands of toxic dirty bombs which polluted the land with Dioxin

and Agent Orange, from which Vietnam up to date is carrying its consequences.

Thousands of Vietnamese children were born with disabilities due to Dioxin containing chemicals entering the human DNA.

The post-war period for Vietnam was not less challenging than Sri Lanka’s own post- war period which started in 2009.

In the early 2000s, the tourism industry in Vietnam employed 150,000 people and it soon became a major source of foreign exchange. The increase in tourist arrivals in Vietnam has been impressive and in comparison to Sri Lanka, and in fact, completely outperforming Sri Lanka as the chart shows.

Remedies

Priority number one is to promote Sri Lanka in all foreign countries as a destination with a 12-month season. A digitally based PR campaign with focus on Sri Lanka as a whole and as - a 12-month tropical destination is a must.

Sri Lanka as A BRAND to be promoted in all major News Channels (CNN, BBC, RT, Al Jazeera, and Indian News). Sri Lanka should be promoted as a beautiful Island in the Indian Ocean, which can be visited and experienced year round.

The writer, a hotelier and tour operator is the CEO, Asian German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP) and Chairman of German-Sri Lanka Project Management Consortium.

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