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Nearly a year on after a series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in the capital city Colombo brought Sri Lanka to its knees, the country’s tourism industry is once again getting back up on its feet to reestablish itself as a desired destination.
Recent months have brought encouraging signs for Sri Lanka tourism stakeholders, not just in the swift recovery of foreign visitor numbers back to the country, but also unprecedented opportunities that arose in the wake of the unfortunate bomb attacks last April.
The Easter Sunday bombs came at a time when Sri Lanka’s nascent tourism sector was “just getting up to cruising speed”, said Miguel Cunat, chief experience officer at The Fabulous Getaway, a Colombo-based travel company, lamenting the loss of positive momentum in tourism branding when the country suffered a 70 percent plunge in tourist arrivals in the weeks after the attacks.
But the bomb attacks, interestingly, also spurred a spike in search traffic for Sri Lanka. “Global travelers generally have low awareness of Sri Lanka, but we received serious publicity from the bombing when ‘Where is Sri Lanka’ became one of the top trending search terms for Google’s annual Year in Search roundup,” said Vickum Nawagamuwage, founder and CEO of Santani Resort and Spa, a luxury wellness resort in Kandy.
“As they say, there’s nothing like bad publicity. [The bombs] really put Sri Lanka on the map,” Nawagamuwage remarked. Savvy travel marketers have been quick to tap the interest spike in the island nation by leveraging digital marketing channels in their recovery strategies, he noted.
Sri Lanka’s unexpected tourism downturn also gave the country a chance to “clean up things and put the house in order,” said KK Collection Executive Director Mario Stubbs. One example, according to him, is the cessation of dismal performers, typically small guesthouses in the oversupplied budget accommodations sector, in the months after the bombings.
Putting the house in order
What has gotten industry players on the island nation most excited is the greater sense of collaboration between the public and private sectors as the country turned the corner from crisis to recovery, said Cunat.
Since coming into power last November, new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has identified tourism as a key sector to revive Sri Lanka’s fragile economy, according to local media reports, and has stressed the importance of developing new tourist attractions and creating an effective promotional mechanism to put Sri Lanka back on the global travel map.
Rajapaksa’s presidency is igniting hopes among private companies that the Sri Lankan government is finally picking up the slack to lead the country’s tourism marketing efforts in a cohesive, strategic manner.
Notably, Rajapaksa has appointed Kimarli Fernando, who has had an illustrious career in the private sector including stints in Standard Chartered and Deutsche Bank, to head the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, and Sri Lanka Convention Bureau as chairperson.
Foremost tasks in her new tourism chief role, Fernando told Skift, is to kick-start the merging of the aforementioned tourism bodies into a single agency with her at the helm as chair. “These three institutions were previously working in silos because their chairpersons and board members were different,” she said. That will no longer be the case, she stressed.
Under her charge, Fernando said that the nation’s top tourism marketing body will now embody “a thought process that’s different from five, 10 years back,” with a greater emphasis on efficiency and inter-ministerial collaboration in issues pertaining to wildlife, cultural, and conservation issues.
Nawagamuwage, however, warned that Sri Lanka tourism’s mass marketing approach no longer works amid intensifying competition in the region, adding that the country’s tourism marketing campaigns to date were “too generic and very much Europe focused even as the latter is declining [in global market share].”
“This is a mismatch in strategy and position of Sri Lanka, [the authorities] need to understand the sub-products of Sri Lanka and how to create specific messages for different markets,” Nawagamuwage remarked.
Fernando, like others in the private sector, believed that the hitherto promotion of Sri Lanka as simply a sun, sea, and sand destination no longer cuts it in a competitive global tourism sector where sustainable and responsible travel experiences are gaining steam.
Sri Lanka Tourism’s five-year tourism marketing plan, which was approved at the first board meeting in January, will finally deliver the “consistency” that the private sector has been clamoring for, according to Fernando.
On the global front, Sri Lanka Tourism’s marketing strategy includes differentiating the global target markets into tier one and tier two priority countries, while some 4,900 locations has been identified and promoted to reflect the true diversity of the country’s tourism assets.
While admitting that the lack of concerted action and efforts in the public sector was a hindrance in the past, Fernando cautioned against the thinking that the onus for change falls solely on the government.
“The private sector still has work to do too. They should move away from price-based to value-based experiences to show what Sri Lanka has to offer. The whole gamut of private sector players should get their game up to add value [to experiences in the country].”
Everyone has to improve. You can be one star and yet offer a good experience,” she stressed.
Khiri Travel Sri Lanka General Manager Petra Ismail agreed that private companies still need to enhance their value proposition to overcome the perception of Sri Lanka as a pricey destination.
A greater attention on sustainability issues, including animals and human rights, is critical to Sri Lanka long-term tourism success, while bad practices in elephant welfare and whale watching tours need to be abolished, she added.
“We’re a small island so we should be clear what we want to be in the next 10 years,” Ismail added. “We should aim more for quality than quantity, and target people who really want to experience Sri Lanka the right way.”
With the positive momentum that Sri Lanka tourism is now gaining, KK Collection’s Stubbs is optimistic that the fast-developing Sri Lankan economy will help to reverse the country’s brain drain and attract human capital back to the country’s tourism sector.
“There is a huge pool of hospitality finance people in Maldives and the Middle East, as well as in London, the U.S., and India,” he remarked. “But with several big tech companies basing their back-end operations in Sri Lanka, and that big hotel brands like Hilton and Shangri-La are now entering the country, these will indirectly entice hospitality talent to come back after their stints overseas.”
Against a backdrop of a widening spread of the coronavirus globally, Stubbs thinks Sri Lanka need not be unduly worried even if the country, which has been relatively unaffected by the outbreak until recent weeks, saw a 17 percent slump in tourist arrivals in February due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The country, no stranger to crises, will definitely pick its way up if the coronavirus thwarts its current recovery trajectory, he contended.
“Sri Lanka tourism always had the potential but never got it right – there’s always someone pushing it down when it tries to swim and come up for air. But a positive message comes through each time from each crisis,” he said. “Sri Lanka has that armory.”