MJF Holdings and Dilmah Tea Director Malik Fernando speaks at the forum yesterday. Others from left: KK Collection Director and Owner George Cooper (moderator), Keells Food Products Non-Executive Director Shehara De Silva, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau Managing Director Charmarie Maelge, and Santani Wellness Resort and Spa Founder Vickum Nawagamuwage – Pic by Lasantha Kumara
- Peak season marred by vicious election cycle
- Insist on annual marketing and strategic plan; lament delay in PR and promotion campaign post-Easter Sunday setback
- Claims Sri Lanka Tourism has lost focus due to numbers game with China and India without adequate focus on European market
- Say stakeholders at bottom of pyramid grappling with many financial difficulties
- Asserts ‘So Sri Lanka’ tagline has no value
- SLTPB confirms free visa-on-arrival for visitors of 43 countries from 1 August
By Charumini de Silva
With no plans for strategy and promotion to take off yet, private sector tourism leaders yesterday alleged that the ‘worst is yet to come’, as Sri Lanka is heading towards a vicious election cycle by the year end, which is also the industry’s peak season.
Noting that Sri Lanka Tourism is still stuck on the ‘numbers game’ and not on value addition or sustainability, the industry stakeholders emphasised the need to get the house in order with proper marketing and strategic plans to elevate the country’s tourism sector.
“The worst is yet to come. We can say things to make ourselves feel good, but what is the likelihood of us having a successful peak season? Right now it is looking rather dim, as we are looking at 50% off last year’s peak season, and we are looking at it from a much lower rate — that is what’s going to devastate us,” MJF Holdings and Dilmah Tea Director Malik Fernando said.
He made these remarks at ‘Let’s Build Local to Go Global’, a discussion organised by the European Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka (ECCSL) to elevate the Sri Lankan tourism industry to reignite confidence in the European market.
Fernando said until the proposed marketing campaign and other initiatives get off the ground, the industry cannot relax. “We have to be paranoid, because if the peak season gets impacted, the entire industry is going to get impacted significantly. That’s when you will have the revolution on the streets, because then you will have the people in the bottom of the pyramid who don’t make money,” he stressed.
He pointed out that the small and medium scale stakeholders at the bottom of the pyramid are grappling with many risks, as they have invested on to buy new tuk-tuks, to build more rooms to their homestay unit, to recruit new staff without no reserves.
“Anyone who thinks or say that things are improving is speaking utter rubbish. Emirates is pulling off one flight from its schedule in a couple of weeks, searches for Sri Lanka is off 60% from the same time last year, arrival data includes a significant number of transit data, which is technically not tourists,” Fernando said.
Keells Food Products PLC Non-Executive Director Shehara De Silva outlined on the importance of getting the house in order to avoid any unfortunate situations, with the upcoming elections during the tourism peak season.
“I think we are all pretty damn screwed at one level, because we have an election in November. Right now, I think figuring out the next six months is critical as we are going into an election cycle, and ramp up into tourism peak. We need to figure out whether we are going to do the global campaigns around it, or focus on niche products and get our act together,” she stressed.
Highlighting the fact that the industry makes money during the peak season, Fernando called on the stakeholders to look at future indicators, without considering the increased off-peak arrival numbers, which is a very low base.
“You need to look at propensity to book for the peak season. As the private sector, we need to use consumer research and digital marketing on what is the likelihood that we will have a decent peak season. It is critical we kick-start the consumer demand,” he added.
Pointing out a 60% dip in bookings is not a good sign with a lot filled with domestic tourists, De Silva suggested the industry should focus on quality and pitch for a good first quarter in 2020.
“I firmly believe that the direction of Sri Lanka Tourism is not positive. There is no orchestrated strategic plan or promotion plan. Our whole focus has been on the numbers game, because it is easy for the politicians, and not about value addition or sustainability of the industry. We have been advocating Sri Lanka Tourism on $10 billion revenue and not 10 million tourist arrivals, because we don’t want to kill the pristineness of this country. We firmly believe that it is about the value addition and the sustainability – not the arrival numbers,” he added.
Fernando also claimed that Sri Lanka Tourism has lost its focus on the numbers game so much that they are largely looking at China and India, without giving adequate focus to the European market, which has actually helped in building the tourism industry in Sri Lanka.
“The focus should be on Anglo-Saxon Europe, North America, and Australian travellers, because that is the fit, as they stay longer, love our food, culture, heritage, and people. We’ve got to attune our products for that, because the long-term viability is with European travellers,” he pointed out.
He also noted that much of the FDIs in Sri Lanka were connected to the European travellers, which would not be drawn from the Asia Pacific, particularly China and India.
Santani Wellness Resort and Spa Founder Vickum Nawagamuwage underscored the need to have strong branding to drive consumer demand, and to go global, especially for nation branding.
“The tagline So Sri Lanka, unfortunately, for me doesn’t make sense. If you have to explain the tagline, there is no value in it. The tagline should be able to explain itself just like Malaysia Truly Asia or Incredible India. Having big taglines and saying Sri Lanka is great is not enough. That’s what we have been doing since the end of the war. We need to have a communication channel and different messages for different segments,” he added.
Despite all the hard rocks thrown, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Managing Director Charmarie Maelge expressed optimism on the initiatives that has been rolled out post-Easter Sunday attacks, as well as on the quicker revival of the industry. “Given the situation we faced, I think we recovered faster than expected. We are confident on our recovery path as, we have already successfully rolled out three promotions in India, Thailand, and China,” she added.
She also confirmed that the free-on-arrival visa to visitors from 46 countries, up from the initially proposed 39 countries, will be commissioned from 1 August.