Bring tourism under Head of State - Expert | Page 2 | Sunday Observer
To notch over 10m in the number of tourist arrivals annually

Bring tourism under Head of State - Expert

9 August, 2020

Bringing the tourism industry under the wings of the head-of-state supported by a task force comprising industry experts is paramount if Sri Lanka is to achieve tourist arrivals in the range of 10 million per annum, said Head of AGSEP Research and a pioneer in the tourism industry, Dr. Dietmar Doering in his recommendations to the new Government.  

He said that if Sri Lanka, over the coming years, could achieve tourist arrivals in the range of 10 million visitors, it would outperform all other Sri Lanka industrial sectors  with a direct GDP contribution in the range of 47 percent.  

“This increase would be a five-fold increase compared to existing annual arrival data as at today, which is in the range of 2.3 million. It’s reasonably fair to predict that a four to five-fold increase of production in sectors such as garment, horticulture, tea, rubber and other service sectors is unlikely to happen,” Dr. Doering said. 

 A task force consisting of academics of the Colombo University Tourism Research, Professionals of all hotel categories, and SLTDA experts should be set up to regularly brief the head of state in respect of achieving the target.  

He said even without the impact of the Easter Sunday attacks and the current pandemic, the tourism industry was struggling to achieve an annual 2.5 million tourist arrival target, while being yearly outperformed by Vietnam, which has reached a remarkable 10 million in the number of tourist arrivals during the past years. 

Sri Lanka and Vietnam began promoting tourism on a big scale in the same decade. Thailand and Malaysia are even eying 40 million tourist arrivals. Here comes the next question as to why Sri Lanka has over the past three decades been struggling with low arrival figures compared to neighbouring countries?  

Two major misconceptions might be some of the stumbling blocks which hinder increasing arrival numbers.  

The misconception ‘Off Season’ makes Sri Lanka a tourist destination for a limited period of six months on coastal sites. From November to April, the East coast with its pristine beaches is off business. Occupancy rates in the range of 5-10% are common. However, the weather patterns do not tally with the term ‘off season’. Beautiful blue skies and calm seas resemble a more high season atmosphere. On the Western coastal belts, off season sets in May and ends in October with similar devastating effects on all hotel category occupancy rates.  

A survey conducted before the corona crisis on high-end star hotels, middle class hotels and guest houses in Sri Lanka by AGSEP Research (an Institute, which provides services and data to international universities and tourism service institutions) showed, that five-star and boutique-style hotels are suffering a crippling blow with occupancy still hovering around a marginal 37% – hardly adequate to cover overheads. However, the position of these luxury properties in no way reflects the overall ground situation in the tourism industry.  

With salary, rental, loan, EPF/ETF commitments, taxes et al, the luxury hotels need at least a 50% occupancy ratio to keep their heads above water.  

Far more pathetic is the plight of the assortment of two-star and three-star hotels, and guest houses spread across the country. They are now in total disarray, especially with the new Corona related rules imposed by the Tourism Development Authorities. This category of middle class accommodation depends largely on direct inquiries through online platforms such as, Expedia, Agoda or Airbnb.  

The next misconception is exorbitant airfares from Europe to reach Sri Lanka.  

The Tourism Ministry has so far been unable to tackle the exorbitant airfares from Europe to Sri Lanka. First-time travellers from Europe could become ‘repeaters’ if reasonable airfares are offered, but unfortunately, there is still no sign of seeing any meaningful efforts to take up this important issue directly with the international airlines concerned.  

It would have been a promising step to directly invite the heads of Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Oman Air and Turkish Airlines, the major carriers from Europe to Sri Lanka, for a discussion to sort out the question of costly airfares to Colombo.  

The Minister of Tourism could have made this a priority ‘must do’ on his calendar as exorbitant airfares are a disincentive to prospective European travellers. There is sufficient room for airlines to offer airfares in the range of 450 to 500 Euros per traveller to Sri Lanka, which is already on offer for other destinations such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Vietnam.

 The Minister should intervene in this matter, and this has to happen swiftly before Sri Lanka’s tourism industry slides further down the precipice.  

Sri Lanka’s tourism is still struggling to achieve an annual 2.3 million tourist arrivals target, while being outperformed by Vietnam, which has reached a remarkable 10 million tourists so far this year. Thailand and Malaysia are eyeing 40 million annual arrivals by the end of 2019.  

The Tourism Ministry should take meaningful steps to invite the airline bosses to Colombo and work out reasonable airfare structures from Europe, which was at one time the major market for Sri Lanka, but has witnessed a drastic drop in recent times. The high-end spenders are the Europeans, and at the same time, more Europeans do their bookings online avoiding tour operator services. This was one of the key factors which led to the recent collapse of the tour operator giant, Thomas Cook.  

The positive ‘Bring a friend to Sri Lanka’ initiative involving celebrities from the sports field launched recently is certainly a step in the right direction.

However, much more needs to be done to bring Sri Lanka’s tourism to the height it deserves. The country deserves it, and people who make a living out of the industry also deserve it to the maximum.  

There is no reason to suggest that Sri Lanka cannot achieve 10 million tourist arrivals during three to five years. This number would result in a significant contribution to the GDP in the range of approx. 47% per annum. It would also enable Sri Lanka to loosen the grip the IMF, World Bank and other international lenders have on the country.  

It is, therefore, prudent to make a collective effort to develop Sri Lanka’s tourism for this reason. It will be wonderful if Sri Lanka can free itself from the clutches of international lenders by making use of the tremendous assets this beautiful island has to offer. It has to become a matter for the Head of State.