From Left: SLTDA Director General Malraj Kiriella, SLTDA & SLTPB Chairman Paddy Withana, Tourism, Land and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga, Petra National Trust Chairman Princess Dana Firas, UNWTO Secretary General Dr. Taleb Rifai, Tourism, Land and Christian Affairs Ministry Secretary Janaka Sugathadasa and UNWTO Communications and Publications Head Sandra Carvao PIC BY SAMANTHA PERERA
By Chandeepa Wettasinghe Doubts are beginning to appear within the tourism administration regarding the ability to achieve the 2.2 million tourist arrival target for 2016, as witnessed at the press conference to conclude the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Conference held in Colombo, last week.
“We have set a target of 2.2 million and we hope we can still achieve it, but given the current circumstances, we’re looking at 2 million,” Tourism, Land and Christian Affairs Ministry Secretary Janaka Sugathadasa told Mirror Business. He was commenting after having a friendly but animated discussion over the subject with Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau (SLTPB) and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairman Paddy Withana and SLTDA Director General Malraj Kiriella. A fortnight ago, Tourism, Land and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga had said that Sri Lanka would attract 2.5 million tourists this year judging from advanced hotel, airline and tour bookings
During the UNWTO Conference, Tourism Hotels Association of Sri Lanka Chairman Hiran Cooray, who had consistently backed government projections in the past, had said that there would be 2 million tourists in 2016. “We will certainly surpass 2 million tourists... In recent years we didn’t carry out massive marketing campaigns,” he said. A recent spike in global terrorism and economic downturns may also contribute to a slowdown in arrivals growth this year. However, UNWTO Secretary General Dr. Taleb Rifai said that there would be no effect from these developments. “Even though there are attacks, it’s not going to affect the global scene. People are going to continue to travel. It’s become a part of our lives,” he said, and added that “We are saddened by the decision of the people of Great Britain to leave EU.
Though it is too soon to tell, there is no effect”. Europeans contribute more revenue to Sri Lanka per tourist compared to India and China. When Withana was inquired regarding arrivals to Sri Lanka, he was adamant that the 2.2 million tourist arrival target would be achieved. “So far, so good. We have achieved about a million tourists by this time. And with the next season we will get it looking at the airlines and the bookings,” he said. He added that with the Rs. 800 million promotional campaign set to kick off in September, there will be a boost in arrivals during the peak season as well. However, it is doubtful whether the campaign will be effective enough to boost arrivals in 2016, as the peak season properly kicks off during Christmas, and if there would be enough time for it to influence markets which are still dominated by tour operators, due to delays in tour bookings. When the previous regime could not attract its targeted tourist arrivals in 2013, it manipulated the official figures to show that the target was achieved.
Sri Lanka also failed to attract the 2 million tourist arrivals set by the previous regime for 2015, attracting only 1.8 million with revenues of US$ 2.98 billion. The figures also take into account Sri Lankans holding foreign passports, and traders who visit for 1-2 days, who may not act like tourists, but fall under the definition due to UNWTO standards. Following political change, Withana who was appointed by the ruling United National Party-led coalition had said that this was due to the previous regime continuously adding numbers to the target without proper study.
The target for 2020 is not yet clear, as different officials quote different numbers between 4-4.5 million tourist arrivals with revenues of US$ 10 billion, though Withana had said studies have now been conducted. Tourist arrivals must grow at 20.4 percent annually to reach a 4.5 million target for 2020, and 22.2 percent to reach the 2.2 million target for 2016. Growth rates of arrivals have been in decline, from 26.7 percent in 2013 to 19.8 percent in 2014, down to 17.8 percent in 2015, and 16.2 percent for the first 6 months of 2016.
Sri Lanka may yet have a chance of achieving the 2020 target if authorities manage to influence the correct markets with the upcoming promotional campaign, and the country branding campaign for 2017-2020, though experts seem to be pessimistic given current and past ‘autopilot’ efforts. Attracting events such as the SNAV (French travel agents association) Conference this year may also contribute heavily in the future.