Sri Lanka needs to create a long-term tourism product

The new Tourism Development and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga says the future tourist will come in search of authentic experience, experiences of culture and heritage and also that the entire industry needs to focus on minimum quality standards to ensure the country gets to the next level to attract the next generation of travellers.

What are your perceptions of the present state of the tourism industry?
The tourism industry is in a high-growth trajectory due to the peaceful and harmonious environment of the country. This situation can be seen in Table 1. The emergence of new markets such as China, India and South Korea and the growth in our traditional markets will help the industry to expand and grow. However, the country needs to gear up for the next wave by professionalizing the industry.
How much revenue does the tourism industry generate for the country? Is it possible that in the future, tourism can be the highest revenue-generating industry in the country? 

Around US $ 2,5 million in 2014 and US $ 1,866 million – up to August 2015 (estimated). 

Tourism has levelled up its position from the fourth place to third as one of the largest foreign exchange earners for the country in 2014. It is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country and in the world. It is possible to make tourism the largest revenue earner in the country by 2020. However, that would require the industry and the regulator to work together. The ministry is currently working on a Sri Lanka Tourism road map for the industry with clear deliverables.

With a new government in place, what are the long-term plans and targets for the tourism industry? 
With the recent development of ‘peace, democracy and good governance’ there is potential to attract more tourists. The peaceful and harmonious environment, which has been established under the newly elected government, has led to higher expectations from tourism. Development of megapolis, sustainable tourism practices, introduction of theme villages, improving home stays under sustainable tourism, will facilitate these goals in a much effective way.

Further, it is expected to develop the tourism industry not only as a way of earning foreign exchange or generating employment but also as an industry which ties the bonds between different religious and ethnic groups and build up the mutual understanding among communities. It is expected to use the tourism industry as a tool to expose Sri Lanka’s cultural heritages and natural beauty to the world, furthermore, making initiatives to preserve them for the future generation. Religious and sport tourism are also areas we need to focus aggressively.

Who are Sri Lanka’s main competitors? How do you plan to differentiate and raise awareness to attract tourists? 
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia can be taken as Sri Lanka’s main competitors in tourism. However, Sri Lanka is authentic in several ways such as its diversity in compactness, hospitality and friendliness and some brands such as Ceylon tea, gems, etc. The future tourist will come in search of authentic experience, experiences of culture and heritage. Therefore, our products should be enhanced without losing their unique attributes.

What are the current drawbacks that you see in the industry? How can these issues be addressed? 
There are some obstacles such as the condition of some roads and transportation issues that hinder tourists as they result in long hours on the road and the lack of convenience. Further, part of the industry is handled by the informal sector and it is often difficult to regulate and maintain the quality of the products and services offered. Lack of awareness on sustainability practices could impact our eco-system, bio diversity and cultural heritage of the country and it might influence the tourism sector in the long run. All these issues will be addressed in our 2020 road map.  

China has become the biggest source of tourists for Sri Lanka in recent months. How do you plan to cater to this market and grow it further? 
Sri Lanka Tourism has been organising trade fairs and promotional activities in China to attract more Chinese tourists. However, we expect to attract more quality Chinese tourists to the country in the future by offering new products. Our teams are currently engaging with some of the key stakeholders to provide the Chinese tourist an authentic experience.

Tourists have complained of harassments, especially in the beach-bound areas. How does the government plan to manage this issue? 
It is planned to hold series of awareness programmes to educate the street vendors, tourist guides and other service providers. We are also looking at absorbing the informal sector to the formal sector by issuing licences to service providers and other parties involved in the tourism business to manage some of these issues in the future.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe talked of creating a tourist zone in the South, during the general election campaign with a view of drawing high-end tourist. How do you plan to attract and grow this niche market? 
As ‘sun and beaches’ being the most popular leisure purpose activity in the year 2014, it is not a difficult task to develop the southern part of the country as a tourism zone. Improving the water quality of the beaches of key tourist destinations in the country would be a top priority. Construction of tourist centres with shops, food courts and rest areas at Calido Beach – Kalutara, introduction of Model Beach in Bentota and the Dedduwa integrated tourism resort are some of the projects that are planned at present in the South. 

There are further plans to develop the South by focusing on many other products beyond beaches such as nature, culture, adventure, body and mind wellness to attract high-end tourists. The entry of top-end hotel operators and also the introduction of air taxis would also help to attract high-end tourists.

Finally, during your term as the Tourism Minister, what key objectives do you hope to achieve? 
To attract quality tourists to the country and to make tourism as the number one foreign exchange earner for the country. Further, it is expected to empower the local people by generating more employment and economic opportunities while looking to create a sustainable long-term industry. Finally, one of the biggest challenges the industry is facing is the development of the human resources. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the industry to work with the ministry to put in place an accelerated human resource development (HRD) programme to develop the skills the industry needs. I am told the industry needs at least an additional 200,000 well trained staff by 2018. 

(Cathrine Weerakkody is a graduate in financial management, a CIMA passed finalist and a freelance journalist)

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