Harnessing the real potential of tourism industry

13 February 2019 09:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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After much drama, a new head has been installed at the country’s tourism establishment. Corporate leader Kishu Gomes on Monday assumed duties as Chairman of both the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau (SLTPB). 


During a press conference last Friday, Gomes promised bringing in at least three million tourists to Sri Lanka this year. The country achieved 2.3 million tourists in 2018, about 200,000 short of the target, which was originally set. 


Although Sri Lanka has achieved considerable growth in the tourism industry, in terms of tourist arrivals and earnings in the post-war period, it has been far from the country’s true potential, which was recently named the best destination to travel in 2019 by the world-renowned travel guidebook brand Lonely Planet.


Gomes is a proven business leader in Sri Lanka’s thriving private sector and has over three decades of experience at top management positions. He is probably one of the youngest Sri Lankans to ever head the local operations of a multinational company. The added advantage is that he has a strong marketing background. 
Last week, he proudly told the media that his DNA is marketing and brand communication. The experience and strategies of Gomes as a marketer could become invaluable for the long-delayed global marketing campaign of Sri Lanka tourism. The Tourism Development, Wildlife and Christian Religious Affairs Ministry last week said they would soon present a detailed plan of the said campaign to the Cabinet, after incorporating the views of Gomes.


The soft launch of the campaign is scheduled to take place at the world’s largest tourism trade fair, ITB Berlin, this March. The three-year campaign, which received the SLTPB board approval recently, will focus on promoting Sri Lanka tourism in eight key source markets, with an estimated budget of Rs.3.0 billion.


Sri Lanka has been feeling the need for a proper destination marketing campaign for a while. But the initiatives taken towards it at various times under several tourism ministers were impeded by the country’s toxic politics and procurement scandals.


This probably is the best juncture in Sri Lanka Tourism’s history to launch a massive promotional campaign as the country’s governance structure remains relatively strong and the civil society’s ability to influence the politics is high. 


However, it is vital to come to a consensus on how to position Sri Lanka as a tourism destination before embarking on a major marketing push. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on several occasions had said given Sri Lanka’s limited carrying capacity, the country should look at attracting high-end tourists, who spend a considerable amount of money during their stays. 


However, given the rising number of informal accommodation providers, it is clear that Sri Lanka is becoming more of a backpackers’ paradise than a sojourn for high-spending tourists. It is believed that Sri Lanka’s vibrant informal tourism sector played a major role in the country being selected as the best place to travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet. 


Hence, the tourism authorities and the industry should reach a consensus as soon as possible on where to position Sri Lanka as a tourism destination, to give a clear message out to the prospective tourists. Every country that recognizes tourism as a major contributor to its economy must have a tourism identity and Sri Lanka shouldn’t be an exception, despite its diverse tourism product offering. 


It is essential that Sri Lanka creates itself a fine balance between high-spending tourists and backpackers and all the country’s promotional and marketing campaigns should revolve around this notion.


Meanwhile, a proposal has been pushed forward by a group of hospitality sector stakeholders urging the authorities to consider giving the country’s tourism industry the export industry status. Even at the height of the separatist war, the tourism industry was able to attract tourists to the country and earn the much-needed foreign exchange to the economy. 


When the tsunami wrecked havoc in the southern and eastern coasts of Sri Lanka, the industry was able to rise from wreckage within a very short time, showing its resilience. Hence, the government should seriously look at including tourism into its export strategy and provide the necessary concession, similar to the other export industries.


Also, the suggestion to establish tourism trade zones, similar to that of export processing zones, could also be a very innovative approach to develop some of the underdeveloped tourism hot spots in the eastern and northern parts of the island.


All in all, what is needed as far as the country’s tourism sector is concerned, is a new approach—be it promoting the country through a global marketing campaign or providing the industry with the much-needed impetus by recognizing their efforts throughout the years. 


One thing we should always keep in mind as Sri Lankans is that worker remittances still remain the highest foreign exchange earner, despite the country having such potential for tourism. Isn’t this anything short of a national embarrassment? 

 

 

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