Tourism in Sri Lanka is gradually recovering after a trifecta of crises – Easter attack, Covid-19 and the economic collapse – virtually decimated the industry. It was reported in the media that over 77,000 tourists have visited Sri Lanka in the first 22 days of October 2023 alone.
Tourism officials expect to record over 1.5 million tourist arrivals by end 2023, a respectable figure, but a far cry from the three million arrivals envisaged for 2023 in pre-Covid days. Neighbouring India tops the arrivals charts, while Russia and the UK rank second and third. Other notable markets include Germany, China, Australia, Maldives, the United States, France, and Spain.
However, it would be naïve to depend solely on these countries and Sri Lanka needs to attract more source markets. Sri Lanka ended the free visa facility granted to most countries in the wake of the Easter attacks and Covid in any case prevented tourists from coming.
Now that the country’s security situation has returned to normal and the economy too has improved, the tourism authorities should strive to attract more tourists to our resplendent isle from new and emerging markets.
The Government recently took a step in this direction by granting free visas to tourists and all citizens from China, India, Russia, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia under a pilot program that will run initially until March 31, 2024.
This is a welcome decision as it will encourage affluent travellers especially from Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia to visit Sri Lanka. Despite the proximity and the availability of low-cost airlines, travellers from these countries generally overlook Sri Lanka in their travel plans. In fact, more Sri Lankans must be travelling to these countries than the collective number of visitors from these countries on an annual basis. Post-pandemic travel is booming in Asia and Sri Lanka must open itself up to these Asian markets. Depending on the success of this pilot program, more countries can be added to the free visa list after April 2024.
This, however, calls for a sustained promotional campaign and road shows in these countries to raise awareness on the many attractions in Sri Lanka. Although just three to four hours away by air, Sri Lanka is not on the radar of travellers from these three countries and many other Asian countries except for China and Japan.
Familiarisation tours for Asian journalists, arranged by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), will go a long way in popularising Sri Lanka as a worthy destination. A single article by a reputed travel journalist in the Straits Times or the Jakarta Post will be more valuable than a press or TV advertisement.
In fact, articles by travel writers in prestigious publications such as The Times and The Independent in the UK have contributed to an enhanced flow of tourist traffic.
Writing in The Independent, travel writer Emma Cooke enthused that “Sri Lanka, in the space of a week, had shown wildlife-filled savannahs, hills shrouded in mist, and beaches so soft they looked as if they were melting into the water”. This is precisely the type of positive publicity that advertising cannot really buy.
Granted, tourism infrastructure must be ramped up to meet the anticipated demand. The expansion of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) must be expedited as more airlines are waiting to begin or increase services to Sri Lanka.
There should be a proper bus, taxi and train service linking the BIA with Colombo and other cities. There should also be a proper car-based, metered “yellow taxi” service in Colombo for the convenience of tourists, along with a hop on hop off tourist bus service that serves various points of interest.
The commencement of operations by the India-based ITC Group in Colombo, with the much-awaited opening of ITC Ratnadipa opposite Galle Face Green will be an import milestone for the local hospitality industry. We hope that the authorities will take immediate action to open the Hyatt Regency too, before or after the planned sale of the building located right opposite Temple Trees.
The Hilton too recently opened a new property in Hambantota, adding to travellers’ choices in the Deep South. But amid these developments, a debate has ensued about the benefits or the lack of thereof, of the Minimum Room Rate (MRR) imposed by tourism authorities on City hotels. After all, competition drives the hospitality industry all over the world and if our star-class hotel rates are too high, some travellers may be tempted to choose other emerging destinations in the region.
And as the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Sri Lanka and the Maldives complement each other perfectly well and are linked by frequent flights. In any case, most flights to the Maldives require a stopover in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India (and even Thailand and Indonesia) can join hands to promote their Buddhist heritage destinations among Buddhists worldwide. Tourism is a global business and sometimes we might have to work together with other Asian countries to attract more tourists to our shores.