Tourism Sri Lanka: A glimmer of hope | Sunday Observer

Tourism Sri Lanka: A glimmer of hope

20 September, 2020

While tourism remained challenged during Sri Lanka’s battle against terrorism, peace time allowed us to flourish again as a South Asian economic hub with tourism at its helm. While there was an increase in foreign direct investment, infrastructure, and an overall boom in development, the tourism industry seemed to lack innovation and re-engineering despite a noteworthy rise in inflow. We can safely say that the tourism industry has remained in the mindset of quantity over quality.

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the helm, his vision was specific and detailed. He took charge with a comprehensive plan to invigorate the tourism industry, gearing it to play a leading role in the country’s economic growth. In the document ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, the President outlined the tourism industry as “one of the most important sectors in our economy to generate foreign exchange earnings. It is also an area that could be easily developed.”

Our island nation is blessed with abundance, from the cool climes of our tea trails to the crystal sands of our beaches, from the breathtaking locations in our wildlife reserves to our world-renowned heritage sites and our world-renowned hospitality. The journals of the Spice Route speak volumes about our coveted cinnamon and spices that to this day, hold court in the global market. Sri Lanka’s Ayurveda Hela Wedakama together with our meditation techniques are sought after by travellers across the world for their powers of healing and the delicate balance achieved in health and wellbeing.

And lest we forget, the treasures of our soil – the world’s largest, rare and native blue sapphires and precious stones mined in Sri Lanka have adorned the likes of royalty and also sit in their grandeur for all to see at prestigious establishments such as the Smithsonian Institute. They are considered to have a unique hue and hold a firm value anywhere in the world. Our suite of offerings is complete. We have it all!

In 2009, Sri Lanka was able to breathe again, but many can wonder if we took this peace for granted. Our complacency was duly tested by the brutal Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, when the tourism industry was brought to its knees. Mass cancellations of bookings and travel warnings issued globally created a deathlike silence in the industry. The domino effect was severe, as countless establishments directly or indirectly lost revenue.

Towards the end of 2019, as Sri Lanka began to raise its head from this tragedy, we were hit yet again by another threat – Covid-19. This pandemic affected both human lives and economies,creating a global lock down.But with the authorities leading the charge and taking timely critical decisions, we went into complete lockdown while successfully balancing the needs of our people.

Our battle plan was so effective that Sri Lanka was highlighted by the World Health Organisation for the manner in which we handled Covid-19. Today, we prepare once again to cautiously step into a new normal and recharge our nation’s economy.

Excellent opportunity

This poses an excellent opportunity for our tourism sector to innovate, re-engineer and construct the target-based strategy that the President is calling for to make the industry a $10 billion revenue earner by 2025. He has provided the vision and the mandate at a meeting with the current tourism industry officials, saying, “We require a skilled team with expertise and dedication. Every step should generate immediate results. On my part, I do not hesitate to take decisions for the benefit of the country. I expect the officials would commit themselves to pass benefits of such decisions onto the public. If there is a target -based plan, every challenge can be overcome”. No truer words were spoken. Therefore, it begs the question as to whether a skilled team with expertise has been placed in this industry’s key positions.

The current trend in tourism development and promotion remains ominously repetitive; countless millions of rupees are flung in the direction of creating promotional videos and other content seemingly without much direction. As beautiful and picturesque as this country is, this type of action is irrelevant in the absence of a strategic plan. It is similar to having a detailed map but not knowing how to read it. How then, are we going to achieve the target set for 2025?

The answer lies in the President’s comment of strategically placing “a skilled team with expertise and dedication.” With our President at the helm, this team can enable his vision and empower the drive towards attracting quality and not quantity. There is absolutely no need to look offshore for talent as Sri Lanka has many key specialists in strategic and digital marketing, who are contracted by leading organisations across the globe. We have our own resources to market brand ambassadors; not to merely be present but to be visible and intelligently promote the nation as the destination of choice.

Thus far, however, we seem to have been treating the symptoms rather than the root cause and struggling to position ourselves as a boutique destination. Sri Lanka must take this Covid-19 to go back to the drawing board to construct a smart and comprehensive strategic plan.

There must be synergy amongst all the tactical teams from core tourism, hospitality, and aviation to conventions and event management. We must also not ignore the valuable input from the smaller tour operators as well as the countless people who engage daily with those in the hospitality as well as tourism industries, both directly and indirectly.

All too often the key decision makers seem far removed from the true picture on the ground, and true leaders know that it is always important to be in touch with the common man or in this case with those whose very livelihood depends totally on a successful tourism industry. It is also prudent to have a trickle down from a master plan to the key segments in this vast sector. It is time to move away from trying to implement multiple strategies that pull at our resources in many directions and focus on putting down the solid foundation of a central plan.

Navigating the future

It will augur well for us to carry out a detailed research audit to attract tourists from countries that have flattened the curve and have no new infections.This is where technology innovation can be applied successfully to analyse which foreign markets to focus on to entice and welcome tourists to visit Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan authorities are contemplating on opening the borders in December and this is the ideal time to initiate a successful tourism plan.

Technology in tourism is known to reduce costs, improve operational efficiency and increase value and experiences that visitors love to cherish. Innovative technology will assist the tourism industry in replacing expensive human labour with technological labour.

Some examples such as automation, mobile self-help applications that will adhere to the post Covid-19 new normal and virtual realities that can lead to competitive tourism advantages as well as an increased destination image of Sri Lanka. This also opens the doors for the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the tourism sector. AI technology reaches far beyond chatbots. The knowledge base that can be built through advanced technology at the backend increases the value of the experiential front-end engagement. The beauty of AI technology is its capacity to self-learn from the information uploaded and create infinite correlations that will then be at the fingertips of tourism decision makers.AI technology together with strategic and targeted digital marketing campaigns, will also give our tourist sector the energy and drive it deserves.

The knowledge base created by machine learning lends itself to micro-segmenting target markets. By doing this, the marketing campaigns are better aimed and will create a more empathetic connection. These connections become relationships – the critical touchpoint for tourism to thrive. Flooding social media with countless generic ad campaigns merely creates a white noise.

No longer can we merely promote Sri Lanka as a holiday destination. It must be experiential. It must have meaning. We must focus on specifics, and that focus must have a purpose. The message, the digital strategy and the medium must be in harmony.

Conde Nast has a global footprint of 5 five million monthly readers, 14 million unique users and a whopping 16.3 million followers on social media. How strong is our alliance with this global giant? How much mileage do we get from the positive reviews and recommendations made by this conglomerate? How much visibility have we strived to attain from its affiliate magazines that reach audiences in fashion to curated cuisine to architecture and interiors? There is a mass of unexplored wealth just waiting for us. In 2019, we were ranked as the #1 place to visit by Lonely Planet. These two heavy-hitters in this sector are not just trendsetters. They are powerful influencers.

From spreading the story about how we cared for tourists stranded in Sri Lanka during Covid-19 to targeted showcasing of our boutique hideaways, the time to capitalise on emotional equity is now.

The future of tourism in Sri Lanka can be a guaranteed success with the proper implementation of the strategic vision laid out by Sri Lanka’s leadership. The greatest constant in this world is change. If we as a nation want to attract lasting quality and not mere quantity in terms of tourism, our strategies must adapt and above all, be agile.

(The writer holds a MBA from the UK, is a Member of the Oxford University Alumni and member of the CIM (UK) and former Director, Operations, ANCL.)