2.33 million tourists – up 10.3 percent over last year; February, March, June and November registered the highest growth rates in terms of monthly ‘arrivals’; December saw a record 253,169 tourists; India, China, the UK and Germany are the top source markets. That, in a nutshell, is the key statistical summary of how 2018 ended for Sri Lanka tourism.
Despite repeatedly missing the 2.5 million arrival target set for 2016, the tourism development minister is optimistic that Sri Lanka will receive four million tourists in 2019. Four million visitors this year call for a mammoth 72 percent ‘year-on-year’ increase – one that is of Baron Munchausen proportion.
The expectation is overly ambitious and many in the industry remain highly sceptical and with good reason. The political turbulence, triggered in late October last year may appear to have gone away and yet, it has a long tail that may wag again – particularly with presidential elections expected to be held later this year.
A target of three million arrivals for 2019 is perhaps more realistic. Even if Lonely Planet predictions ring true, after naming us the top country to visit in 2019 and making Sri Lanka even more popular, achieving a 28.7 percent increase over that of 2018 is still a huge challenge. It would still require ramping up several other game-changing tourism opportunities – all aimed at boosting visitor numbers. This includes considering visa-free travel, mainly during the low season periods whilst studying seasonality patterns in arrivals that vary according to country of origin.
Usually, ‘arrivals’ performance during the first quarter (January to March) of the year, which also marks the latter half of the ‘high season’ is a strong indicator of things to follow. Last year, 707,924 tourists visited Sri Lanka as of March 31. That was a 17.1 percent growth over the same period, previous year. To be on track for three million visitors in 2019, we must have at least 975,000 visitors in the bank by end-March.
To continue the impetus and going into the low season months of April/May and June, strategically planned volume-driven campaigns, similar to ‘Island Escapes’ launched in September last year, needs to be rolled out and rolled out earlier (proactively) rather than later (reactively).
Otherwise, we will be playing ‘catch up’ by mid-year. In cricketing parlance, April to June is similar to the 10th - 40th overs in ODIs, where fielding restrictions come off. With fewer boundary opportunities, you have to maintain the run rate by sprinting lots of ones and twos. So it’s a case of consolidation and keeping the scoreboard steadily ticking.
Whilst Sri Lanka for Australians is in the minor league, signs are that Australians are finally turning away from Bali, which by itself is the country’s number one draw card and the single reason that most Australians travel to Indonesia. With SriLankan Airlines non-stop flights from Melbourne, we should target 150,000+ visitors from that country for 2019.
To stay on track, we should receive 1.5 million visitors between January 1 and June 30, 2019. (There were 1,164,647 tourists in the first half of 2018). By which time, the benefits of Sri Lanka Tourism’s branding, marketing and global tourism campaigns should kick-in.
The latter half of the year will tangibly demonstrate whether our marketing approach is smart, well received by the targeted audience and has the highest return on investment across the board. Should that be the result and provided the landscape stays calm, welcoming three million visitors is a done deal.
(Shafeek Wahab, Editor of Hospitality Sri Lanka, is a consultant, trainer and an ex-hotelier)