Sri Lanka ticks all the boxes of an irresistible tourism destination but repeated uncertainties have kept the island nation off the itineraries of its target audience on and off, for decades.
First, it was the 30-year conflict. Within it was the tsunami; then the 2019 Easter Sunday attack and now the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted the world.
Crisis is nothing new for Sri Lanka’s budding tourism sector but this time round, required are renewed thinking and focus for revival, says Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President/Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau (SLTPB) Board Director Maahen Kariyawasan.
Mirror Business recently sat down with Kariyawasan for an in-depth interview, where he spoke about the issues, development and potential of the industry, which is a key contributor to the national economy.
Following are the excerpts from the interview.
Sri Lanka is gearing up to reopen its doors by August. How are the tourism sector players preparing to welcome the visitors?
We are getting about it. There are lots of protocols to be followed. One such is the PCR test that requires a proper process. From our side, there are lots of discussions with the Health Ministry.
Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators President/Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau Board Director Maahen Kariyawasan
Pic by Nisal Baduge
It was decided that the requirement of doing a PCR test prior to travel for obtaining visas would be waived off. The reason being, in foreign countries it is very expensive. But the test will be carried out for a fee on arrival. The tourists would have to pay US $ 65 for the PCR test that would be carried out on arrival and for the additional three tests that would be carried out during the stay.
The tourists/visitors would have to spend a few hours at the airport and if the test is negative, they can move on. However, the visitors are required to share their full itinerary for each day. By the end of the fifth day, there will be a mobile unit reaching the tourist to do the second PCR test. This will most likely be privatised.
All hotels have also been given guidelines and the PHIs will be working closely to ensure the guidelines are followed. We have a policy document drafted but it is undergoing many changes.
The inbound tour operators, from the transport end, we are disinfecting all vehicles and this process will be carried out after every trip. Also the guide who would be accompanying the tourists would require to undergo PCR testing.
There is a though that after every trip the guide would need to undergo self-quarantine but that is not sure as yet. That will be two weeks off the road again. So, such areas we need to relook.
Since the shutdown of the country in mid-March till the opening for business in May, how have the inbound tour operators used this time to realign to the shifts in the market?
The first few months, most of the offices were closed. We didn’t have much to do. Even now, most offices are functioning on a shift basis, since we are not entirely open for business.
However, we have taken a few initiatives. One includes the opening of the youth wing of SLAITO – SLAITO Youth. Here we will be carrying out workshops, webinars and other activities to groom the upcoming generation.
The youth have so much to offer. They think different, out of the box and are creative. They are tech-savvy and well-equipped to bring into the business new ideas. At this point of time, we need this. We need to do things differently and this is where the SLAITO Youth will come into play.
In the coming months, they will work closely with us in getting Sri Lanka’s message across to the world, that Sri Lanka is open, it is safe and that it has been successful in handling the outbreak.
What are the changes in trends and behaviour of tourists we are likely to witness post COVID-19?
Post COVID-19, we will see changes the way in which the tourists choose to spend their holidays. From the travelling, to the selection of destinations, to the experience, all will be quite different. We will see people wanting to travel in smaller groups, especially those from Europe.
The middle-income audience Sri Lanka was attracting has been impacted. They will think twice and would probably look to travel within Europe before considering Asia.
Also, we would see tourists booking their holidays through tour operators, as opposed to booking directly online, since should anything go wrong, they would not be stranded and there is some sort of support that they could lean on. The way forward will be in that direction. So, these are factors we would need to keep in mind when we plan our strategies.
COVID-19 is a global crisis and the tourism sector is one that has been massively impacted. When Sri Lanka opens doors from August 1, what would be the traffic like?
Even though we open in August, it is good to say Sri Lanka is open again but it will take some time for people to gain confidence. The other point is air travel. There are various thoughts about it, since there is no social distancing in the aircraft. Also, a number of airlines have shut down. So, that means
The budget carriers might have issues in continuing. I hope the air fair will remain the same – else it will be a big hit. Airlines have assured that a hike would not be likely, so can only hope that stance continues.
The air fares play a major role. So, it is imperative that they remain attractive enough for people to consider travelling.
Our key tourism markets have been heavily impacted with the pandemic and would take more time to recover. In that context, what are the markets Sri Lanka will focus on, in the short term?
We will have an issue here, specially the Schengen countries, as they have not yet approved travel overseas. But the first market to pickup would be China, since we also have a friendly relationship with China, between the two governments.
Then also the back packer market, since there are a number of young people who are looking to get out there, after the pandemic. However, it will not be a big boom as such.
We are getting bookings and inquiries for December and January. So, we will see people coming back only after Christmas.
In terms of new markets, we need to look at new destinations such as Korea, to promote Sri Lanka. They had a second wave but they are handling it well. That will be a good market for Sri Lanka.
Are there efforts taken by Sri Lanka tourism to explore these opportunities? Are the efforts market-specific?
Yes, there are efforts taken in this regard. I also sit at the SLTPB board and we have talked about formulating a global campaign, where we will be taking into account new markets and Korea is one of them. Also, China being a huge country, there is a lot to untap.
What is the expectation of the tourists at this point of time? What does the industry need to do differently? If you look at the efforts taken over the years to push tourism, we have been doing more of the same.
It is a good time to look at the sites that are being overvisited, such as Yala, where we have over 100 to 200 tourists visiting at the same time. Then there is Sigiriya. It is an ideal time to rethink and see what we can do different.
There is a need to plan out new excursions to attract tourists. There are lots of areas across the island that are worth exploring and would definitely deliver the experience tourists are looking for. We have not really identified such areas and developed them and this is crucial.
Even the East, we have not properly promoted that destination to tourists. Hambantota, since we have the highway, is also an area of potential. There is a well-equipped conference hall just sitting there and we have done nothing to make use of it. It will be good to promote that for MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism.
There are other virgin areas that have so much potential but require development. A lot can be done.
Sri Lanka is not the only country to be impacted by the pandemic and we handled the situation fairly well, compared to the regional peers and even the larger economies. What can the local tourism sector do to capitalise on the situation? How can it change this issue into an opportunity?
We handled the outbreak and are continuing to handle the outbreak quite well and that is certainly an opportunity for us to capitalise on. For example, if you take the elderly community, unlike in other countries, in Sri Lanka, they were not affected as much. We can use this as a selling point to promote Sri Lanka as a safe destination to travel for that segment during the winter holiday.
Also, our regional peers, Thailand, Vietnam and others, once the situation settles down in their countries, they will start canvassing for tourists. We will be fighting for the same pie.
It is essential for us to work with overseas tour operators, as it is a good channel to capture the interest of tourists. In other countries, they offer a variety of incentives to the overseas tour operators, to pull in tourists to their countries. They are the focal point, where the potential travellers go to for recommendation. So, it is important for us to work with them, so that Sri Lanka is one of their suggestions.
If we support them by way of some incentives, we would be able to increase the visitation of global travellers into the country.
Have we ever done this – extending incentives to overseas tour operators?
We did it once, after we were hit by the tsunami. It was for about a year and the tourism sector did reap the benefits of those efforts.
We need to consider this and if we don’t, we are likely to lose out since our peers are doing it. We could consider offering about US $ 10 per client. They would be more motivated to sell Sri Lanka to their customer base.
I must point out that some countries even support the airlines to ensure the continuity of the route. For example, in Egypt, in a 200-seater aircraft, if there are 50 seats vacant, the Egyptian Tourism Authority pays for those seats, at least the cost part of it. This way, the airlines would think twice before cancelling a route.
We could also look at giving some incentives by way of extending discounts in ground handling charges and other areas, as a way of encouragement. Not for long but for at least six months, since we need to encourage them to return. We cannot afford to lose routes now, especially when we are looking to revive.
How has the stimulus from the government been so far? Have the industry stakeholders received the expected relief?
The government has extended the financial package but it has not filtered through the banks as yet. About two weeks ago, a Cabinet paper was presented, specifically on tourism and that was good. It highlighted the need to extend loans at 4 percent. After the president’s speech to the Central Bank, things seem to be moving now. Otherwise the banks were going a bit slow.
We hope that in the next few days the funds come through, so we can settle salaries. That is an area we are struggling with – meeting the
The relevant authorities have taken a number of initiatives to help support the industry. Is enough being done in that area?
The SLTDA is playing a major role and we are quite happy with what is being done. We have put forwards our suggestions and they have been taken onboard.
However, I feel there is more to be done in making our citizens friendlier towards tourists. We need some intervention and awareness there. It is rather unfortunate that we have turned out this way. There are many occasions tourists have been harassed and stigmatised.
When we open in August, our people need to be friendlier, since what happened in March was not very good. The Chinese were driven out of hotels and restaurants. Even the Sri Lankan Chinese were impacted by this.
There is a necessity for the government and SLTDA to carry out some awareness campaign, to stress that people need to be more hospitable.
Even our own drivers were victims of this stigmatisation, since they were considered as carriers of the virus, as they were with the tourists. It is disappointing the manner in which some people behave and it does have a heavy impact on who and what we are as a country.
How has the SLAITO contributed to the ongoing crisis management? What are the measures and efforts taken?
We most certainly did. During the curfew, the SLAITO stepped in and took over the Sri Lanka Tourism commercial centre, down Galle Road. A crisis centre was established, where together with the Tour Guides Association we had a 24-hour call centre to help the stranded tourists, to help them get back. These were tourists who did not arrive through tour operators and came on their own.
They had issues getting about during the curfew. Some of the accommodation providers were not hospitable and had driven these tourists away. They were in a rather difficult situation. So, we took the initiative to ensure that they leave the country with some positive thoughts.
In addition to this, we also created an initiative, ‘One Industry, One Voice’. We have invited other associations within the tourism sector to be part of this and it is picking up well. Our issues and concerns are common. So, it is good to have a collective effort.
Is there any target on the number of tourists Sri Lanka will aim to attract by the end of the year?
It is difficult to judge and set a target. 2018 was the best year. Last year, with the attacks, we ended with 1.9 million tourists. This year, we are missing the best season – summer holidays. So, we would likely end with 500,000 tourists.
What are the areas that require focus within the industry that would help increase the average spend per tourist?
We can do a lot more and we are not capturing the average spend as yet, which is essential to formulate plans and come up with strategies.
We need to be innovative in getting tourists to spend. One such is to capture and document their experience, which can be sold for a good charge. In countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and many more, they capture via pictures the experience of the tourists at various sites. When leaving, he or she may choose to have these printed, which takes minimal time and purchase the same.
We can do this in Sigiriya, where the government can provide training and cameras for unemployed youth, under a loan scheme, to do something similar. Cambodia does this. This is an opportunity. These are little things we need to develop and this goes a long way.
We need to train even the smallest stakeholders serving tourists to know how to convert what is a simple transaction into an experience, where the tourists would consider paying a premium for.
In these areas, there is a lot of room for improvement.