By Dr. Chandi Jayawardena and Srilal Miththapala
Sri Lanka is more popular than ever as a tourist destination, meaning there is an urgent need for more well-trained and qualified managers.
A bitter civil war from 1983 to 2009 affected tourism in Sri Lanka resulting in low demand, low prices and a reputation as a cheap destination. Turnaround came when the war ended.
In 2012, Sri Lanka passed two milestones in its tourism history by recording more than one million tourist arrivals and US $ 1 billion in export earnings.
Sri Lanka’s positioning statement: Asia’s diverse, authentic and compact island aptly captures the product and service offering and 2013 is likely to be the best year so far. Among others, the following accolades are noteworthy:
The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum in 2013 ranked Sri Lanka in the 14th place among 25 countries in Asia Pacific and the 67th among 140 countries in the world. In 2013, Sri Lanka did remarkably well by being the 11th in the world for one indicator - Government prioritisation of travel and tourism.
Lonely Planet ranked Sri Lanka as the number one destination in the world to visit in 2013.
World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) placed Sri Lanka in the third place in South Asia behind India and the Maldives in terms of international tourist arrivals.
In 2011, Sri Lanka’s government set a target of reaching 2.5 million tourists by 2016. Simply looking at the number of hotel rooms available and new hotels in the pipeline, as well as the skilled hotel labour needed to provide services, it is clear now that Sri Lanka cannot achieve such an optimistic target.
Hotel room stock by the end of 2012 was 15,510. In addition, there are approximately 6,750 rooms in the supplementary accommodation sector (guesthouses, holiday bungalows, home stays and youth hostels).
There have been many forecasts and calculations done about the required room statistics that are needed to accommodate 2.5 million tourists. What many analysts do not realise is that the required room capacity depends not only on occupancy, but also on the average duration of stay per guest. In the case of Sri Lanka, this has been at a high of ten days, since the destination has so far been predominantly beach and leisure-oriented.
However, with new market segments emerging, this is bound to reduce. Sri Lanka could reach a revised tourist arrival target of 1.9 million by 2016 with a total room stock of around 33,000 if the average stay drops to eight nights. This appears to be more realistic. We predict that Sri Lanka could reach 2.5 million tourist arrivals target by 2018 with a total room stock of 39,000 rooms.
There are various interpretations of the actual number of employees needed by 2016 and beyond. The statistics of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) indicate that there were a total of some 57,780 persons directly employed in the tourism industry last year, while a further 80,900 are employed in the informal sector.
Hence, using a very basic ratio analysis of 57,780 direct employees servicing 22,260 rooms in 2012, it would mean that there will be the need for 101,232 direct employees to service 39,000 in 2018. The country therefore needs to train and develop some 43,452 new tourism workers in the next five years, for direct employment alone. This figure would be much larger when one considers the informal sector, as well as the newer tourism-related job opportunities being created in entertainment malls and casinos.
One of the key challenges is that for nearly 50 years Sri Lanka tourism has been over-dependant on the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) to educate and train hotel staff. The SLITHM was established in 1964 as the Ceylon Hotel School and School of Tourism.
Over the years, the SLITHM focused on training personnel for top and middle management positions in the industry, supplemented with a programme of short courses at craft level to provide the personnel for the various operating departments.
The SLITHM and its satellite schools currently have an output of only around 2,500 every year, which indicates that overdependence on the SLITHM to train the majority of new tourism workers is unwise.
Apart from the SLITHM, hospitality education in Sri Lanka is supported by only a handful of other hospitality schools, which are all small in size. One of these is the Imperial Institute of Hospitality and Leisure (IIHL), which is delivering the Institute of Hospitality’s Diploma in Management for International Hospitality and Tourism. However, there has also been a rapid growth of unregulated hotel staff training institutes in and around the major cities.
In this context, the key issues arising are:
Innovative internal (within Sri Lanka) promotion of the industry’s image to change perceptions and attitudes has not been done.
The number of trained hospitality staff is inadequate to assist with the country’s post-conflict reconstruction and development of tourism.
Commercialisation of the operation of the SLITHM as part of a modernisation effort has not taken place.
Sri Lanka needs to establish a wider range of development options so that rural communities in particular can play a meaningful part in rebuilding tourism.
Sri Lankan tourism and hospitality management professionals must think outside the box, be innovative and learn from various best practices as well as similar challenges faced by other destinations. In this context, we suggest the following:
Current hotel employees
Reintroduce the concept of ‘on the job trainers’ from hotels to train new employees.
Develop continuing education opportunities for current employees to encourage higher certification and multi-skill development.
Push for mandatory certification for selected categories of tourism and hospitality sector job positions.
Improve earning packages and opportunities for better bank loans by introducing a minimum service charge.
Encourage some overseas Sri Lankan hotel workers to return home by making earning packages attractive.
High school students
Promote tourism and hospitality as an attractive career option to high schools. Develop tourism curricula in secondary education and introduce a dual credit system for tourism and hospitality subjects between high schools and post-secondary institutions.
Promote hospitality apprenticeship programmes with concurrent employment for teenagers.
Staff from other industries
Develop second career options for mature persons from other industries with different but useful skill sets.
Create ‘fast track’ training opportunities for university graduates from other disciplines.
Promote continuing professional development and professional standards.
Encourage the development of more private hospitality schools.
Promote the concept of functional hotel schools by expanding training departments at large hotels.
Liberalise the salaries (from the government salary structures) at the SLITHM to offer industry-compatible salaries and thereby attract industry leaders to join the institute to teach.
Promote franchised education with opportunities for international partnership and collaboration.
Professional associations such as the Institute of Hospitality’s Sri Lanka branch must play a pivotal role in using these opportunities and in influencing Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality sector.
(Dr. Chandi Jayawardena FIH is a past President of the Institute of Hospitality and President of Chandi J Associates Consulting in Canada. Srilal Miththapala FIH is Project Director/Consultant of EU SWITCH-ASIA Greening Sri Lankan Hotels Programme)