Having battled political instability and economic crisis, a resilient tourism industry in Sri Lanka now waits for the government to do its bit to communicate to the world that the country is open to tourists.
But not exactly in the critical manner that was deployed by Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Harin Fernando at the recent ITB Berlin conference, where he called Maldives “boring,” without much to offer to tourists, compared to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s last real tourism promotion campaign was 16 years ago.
Through March 13, Sri Lanka welcomed 264,022 visitors this year, with 53,838 visitors arriving in the first 13 days of March.
The country plans to attract 1.55 million visitors in 2023, a target which many feel isn’t a particularly high number given the capacity and potential of the destination.
Rocked by a series of bomb blasts in 2019, Sri Lanka welcomed a little less than 2 million tourists that year, 18 percent lower than its 2018 arrivals of 2.3 million tourists.
Last year from April onwards, the country witnessed a spate of anti-government protests against worsening shortages of food, fuel and medicines and declaration of a state of emergency, in what is said to be the worst economic crisis in the country.
While business has returned in 2023, Malik Fernando managing director of Sri Lanka-based luxury hotel collection Resplendent Ceylon, rued that the country’s inability to market itself has ensured that the number of tourists and the spend are still way lower than usual.
Sri Lanka’s usual core market over the winter season is Europe with longer stays and higher spend.
However, as European travelers are more sensitive to the negative press that the destination received last year, Fernando said the state promotion agency should’ve done more to communicate the return to normalcy.
“Sri Lanka’s last global promotion campaign was in 2007,” Fernando said, while adding that a comprehensive consumer campaign, which was painstakingly finalized during 2021, was then again shelved.
“Since then, the focus has reverted to age-old trade shows without awareness of the need for consumer engagement,” he added.
While the tourism industry in Sri Lanka was the first to be affected by the pandemic and last year’s economic crisis, Gayangi Wirasinha, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent Sri Lanka, said the industry was also the first to recover.
A recovery message that Fernando thinks the country hasn’t been able to communicate as travellers are unaware that normalcy returned as far back as July 2022.
“In Sri Lanka, the tourism sector is predominately driven by private investments with the government authority mostly focused on regulations and marketing in select foreign markets,” Wirasinha said.
Calling rebuilding a communication problem even for the private sector, Fernando said private stakeholders focus more on trade outreach whereas consumer marketing is critical to allay fears after the negative media in the second quarter of 2022.
“A debilitated private sector cannot adequately compensate for a non-performing state marketing agency,” he said.
However, he mentioned that the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, founded in 2019 by a group of private sector leaders, has started a marketing campaign with limited budget in European markets.
“The pickup we are starting to see could have started long before had we communicated,” said Fernando.
Utilising the marketing levy collected from private stakeholders, the travel industry in Sri Lanka had expected a digital and marketing campaign to start months ago.
Given the importance of tourism to the economy and livelihoods of 15 percent of the population, Fernando said in future, this “critical function” should be outsourced to a professional outfit.
Tourism has been Sri Lanka’s third-largest foreign exchange-earner in 2019 bringing in an estimated $3.6 billion.
The Sri Lanka government had been planning to launch a $1.3 million-worth global tourism campaign to bring back travellers to the country, according to reports last year.
However, the campaign is yet to see the light of day.
Wirasinha too acknowledged that the campaign that has been under discussion for the past 2-3 years, is long overdue, especially since the funding for such programs comes from the tourism development levy charged to all private stakeholders.
“Careful planning and execution are required to share compelling stories and timely news for travel professionals that will inspire prospects,” she said.
Now, in a recent development, the government said that Sri Lanka would launch tourism promotional campaigns in nine key markets.
The campaigns that are expected to start from April, would include India, Russia, UK, Germany, France, Australia, Middle East, Scandanavia and China.
While Russia and India have been key markets in the last couple of months, the low spend has been a talking point in the industry, said Fernando.
Talking about specific markets where Sri Lanka has an enduring appeal and can command a longer length of stay and rewarding spend, Fernando named UK, Europe, U.S, Gulf and Australia.
For Wirasinha, the low-hanging fruit for Sri Lanka would be travelers coming from neighboring Maldives, which is a 60-minute plane ride away.
She added, “The U.S., UK and Europe are all good source markets for family travel, especially now with the strength of the U.S. dollar.”
Sri Lanka was also one of the 20 countries included in the first list of China’s outbound tourism pilot programme for group tours, announced in January.
And even as Sri Lanka attracts a significant number of mid-to-budget-Chinese travellers, Wirasinha said lack of ultra-luxury products has kept the Chinese luxury market away from the destination.
“We see this changing in the next five to seven years as the China Port city project begins operating,” she said.
Change indeed is what the travel industry in Sri Lanka is looking forward to.
And while the country looks to bring back its days of tourism glory, Fernando observed, “A state agency is woefully geared to conduct modern tourism marketing, competing with destinations that have sophisticated strategies outsourced to professionals.”
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