Way forward for tourism | Sunday Observer

Way forward for tourism

Sri Lanka Tourism launched the ‘So Sri Lanka’ brand identity campaign in London, at the World Travel Market (WTM), the leading global travel trade show for industry professionals. While the launch also marked the importance of the United Kingdom as the third largest source of tourists to Sri Lanka, it also showed up the vulnerability of the structure of the country’s tourism industry.

Tourism has come a long way since the Tourist Development Act of 1968 launched the modern industry on the island. The number of tourists increased from 46,247 in 1970 to 2,116,407 in 2017; in the first ten months of this year alone, 1,885,045 tourists arrives, a 10% increase over the corresponding period last year.

The sector contributes USD 3.6 billion per year towards bridging the nearly USD 10 billion trade gap. It provides 400,000 jobs directly and many thousands more indirectly; its total contribution of 11% of the gross domestic product (GDP) surpasses those of agriculture and construction. These figures go to show that tourism is vital to the well-being of Sri Lanka.

Most of the growth in the sector came about in the eight years following the end of the civil conflict in May 2009. The number of tourist arrivals increased nearly five-fold in those years of new-found peace and prosperity. However, there are now murmurings that the ongoing political crisis is causing a crisis in tourism.

Downward trend

Of course, these rumblings should be taken in the context of the generally lower number of tourist arrivals in the four months between the Summer and Winter peaks. Notably, this year, the increase over last year of tourist arrivals in August, September and October showed a downward trend from the earlier months.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the political situation has had an impact on tourism. Two of the major causes have been adverse travel advisories by key countries (including Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA) and the negative media coverage overseas.

Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama went on record as saying the travel advice by a few countries could not be justified, since no incidents of violence or disruption occurred. Foreign missions are, of course, obliged to look out for the well-being of their compatriots; but taken in conjunction with the general news media picture of Sri Lanka, as a violent country, that has been built up in Western countries over the past few years, the travel advice could overturn the benign image provided by the tourism media.

Of course, the behaviour of Sri Lankan politicians since October 26 has provided more than enough ammunition for the sensation-hungry foreign media. Visuals of parliamentarians demonstrating in the House – a fairly common scene, worldwide: from brawls in Japan’s Diet to throwing eggs the Kosovo and Ukrainian legislatures – probably had less effect that the Speaker’s announcement of the possibility of an imminent ‘bloodbath’, which flashed across the globe within hours. Unfortunately, foreigners are not aware to what extent Sri Lankan politicians use hyperbole, and may have taken these words as representing an actual threat of sanguinary violence.

Few markets

What the political crisis has revealed, is the extent of the dependence of Sri Lanka’s tourist sector on a few markets. A mere 16 countries in Western and Central Europe accounted for nearly 36% of Sri Lanka’s tourist arrivals in the first ten months of this year. The non-European ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA) accounted for a further nearly 11%. On the other hand, our nearest neighbour, India provided 18% (mainly very low-budget visitors) and China 12%.

Incredibly, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, some of the world’s richest, although very close to Sri Lanka (Dubai, the region’s flight hub, is a mere 4¼ hours away by jetliner) just 2.6% of tourists in the first ten months of 2018.

This is amazing, since these countries provide a large part of the ‘beef’ in London’s tourist income, despite being 7½ hours flying time away from Dubai. In the first half of this year, 341,000 tourists from the GCC visited London, compared to just 22,427 who visited Sri Lanka in the same period.

Visitors from three GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, spent the most per head in London the first nine months of last year – Saudi spending alone totalling USD 1.1 billion.

The reasons for the disparity are not hard to find: London markets itself aggressively as a tourist destination in the Gulf. It goes out of its way to be welcoming to Muslim visitors: the global Islamic tourism rating agency Crescentrating’s 2018 Global Muslim Travel Index ranks the UK as the world’s third best non-Islamic destination, and the 22nd overall; whereas Sri Lanka didn’t even make it to the non-OIC top 20 – a feat managed by Thailand, the Philippines and India, all of which have ongoing Islamist separatist insurgencies.

The litany grows. East Africa is the fastest growing region of the World right now. Some 15,000 tourists from Kenya alone visited London in the first six months of this year.

In comparison, Sri Lanka attracted only 300 visitors from Kenya, and even fewer from the other East African countries. Of course, East Africa is only connected to Sri Lanka by flights via Dubai or some other half-way house. However, Sri Lanka also under-performs among emerging Buddhist markets. Thailand, with which Sri Lanka’s has the strongest religious ties, only provided 4,685 tourists to Sri Lanka in the first six months of this year, and the second fastest-going region, Buddhist Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), contributed a mere 2,402.

Thailand alone sent 25,000 tourists to London in the same period. The reason for this disparity is less clear. There are regular flights between Colombo and Bangkok, and easy connections to Indochinese airports.

The same goes for the region: there are more Indian visitors to faraway London than to Sri Lanka, despite so much shared heritage.

There are even marginally more Chinese visitors. We should thank our lucky stars for the Maldivians, 33,490 of whom visited in the first six months of this year.

Unfair

The comparison with London is, of course, unfair. It is a centre of money and investment. It is a fashion, shopping and cultural capital. And, even in the midst of riots or exploding bombs, few governments advise their citizens not to visit that metropolis. However, it does indicate where Sri Lanka is going wrong.

London does not hesitate to market itself aggressively in new or emerging markets, for which It provides a whole gamut of attractions, historical, cultural, sporting, commercial and (not to beat about the bush) sexual.

It has the added advantage of being familiar to most potential visitors – having been the centre of imperial rule of 1/3 of the planet. Sri Lanka does not have to become another London (or another Singapore or another Macao). But it needs to develop the attractions it has, and market itself aggressively in alternative markets.

For example, Sri Lanka has many links with the Arab and Islamic world – Adam’s Peak, Sindbad the sailor, Ibn Battuta, and very importantly, Arabi Pasha. Yet is Arabi Pasha’s dwelling at Halloluwa (near Kandy) even marked, let alone marketed? Where are the Sinbad- or Ibn Battuta-themed attractions?

For that matter, do we market the fact that a Thai prince was ordained a Bhikkhu? That a Buddhist vihara with a stupa in the Thai style, of which the Thai Royal Family are lay supporters, lies at the centre of Kotahena?

The problem may be that our attitudes towards tourists are Eurocentric. Our image of a tourist is of a white person, and our promotions tend to propagate the same image. If new markets are to be captured, the imagined tourist should be Middle Eastern or East Asian, or African.

It is also important, when projecting the image of Sri Lanka into the new and emerging markets, that we position ourselves rather higher. This island is considered a value-for-money, low-end destination, partly due to the proliferation of internet-booking alternative accommodation.

This has to change: Sri Lanka is too small a destination for hordes of low-spending back-packers. While budget travellers will always be a part of the market, the tourism industry has to package itself as up-market.

In doing so, there is one failing which the tourism authorities have been grappling, which needs to be corrected. The level of service is not up to the mark. Our tourist personnel are generally cheerful, friendly and helpful. However, in the face of an unexpected situation or emergency, their training does not equip them adequately for facing the task at hand.

Fortunately, a new curriculum has been devised for tourism personnel, which is intended to provide more flexibility in service provision. Most importantly, foreign languages other than English will be taught to future staff, enabling a more effective provision of service to visiotrs from new and emerging destinations. 

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