Former Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Vasantha Leelananda in this interview with the Daily FT shares some key insights on the future of tourism industry in post-war Sri Lanka
Q: Do you believe that the tourism industry in Sri Lanka is on the correct path in terms of sustainability and growth?
A: Yes. Sri Lanka has become one of the most sought after destinations in the region and this is reflected in tourist arrivals to the destination. There is growth from Middle East, Eastern Europe, India and the Asian region in addition to traditional markets. We are also fast becoming a hub for cruise and luxury passenger movements, which is an interesting development. Sustainability of our product is essential and although everyone is in agreement with this, there is much more to be done.
Q: Can you outline how the industry is structured and regulated and who drives and manages the brand ‘Sri Lanka’ from a tourism perspective?
A: The tourism sector has been identified as one of the key sectors propelling the country’s economic growth. Accordingly under the auspices of the Ministry of Economic Development a tourism development strategy has been developed from 2011-2016. This has outlined a clear vision for the future to achieve 2.5 m tourist arrivals by 2016, which will be spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).
Q: We see our competitors and neighbours using strong, cohesive thematic campaigns with a definite strategic positioning to market each destination. Is there such a strategic positioning for the brand ‘Sri Lanka’? If so, can you please outline the position for us?
A: The country is marketed under the tagline ‘Wonder of Asia’. In the Visit Sri Lanka 2011 campaign, Sri Lanka tourism focuses on eight experiences symbolising themes unique to the destination. It is around this that the promotional campaign was developed in consultation with the tourism industry.
Q: Has the industry accepted and included to strategic positioning in their development plans? Is this message integrated into the business plans of the individual companies operating in the industry?
A: The Sri Lanka Tourism Development strategy five-year master plan has been presented to the industry and now we are collectively working towards achieving these objectives. It is up to the individual companies to align themselves with the macro strategy and I believe this is happening.
Q: Is the tourism industry in Sri Lanka sustainable?
A: The tourism industry in Sri Lanka is sustainable and we have to ensure that our heritage sites, game parks and other unique attractions such as whale-watching, The Gathering (of elephants) and leopards in Yala are protected and remain national treasures for years to come.
Communities should become strong stakeholders in our industry and this resource should be used to showcase experiences and our traditions. In addition to creating employment they should become partners in progress as well.
Q: What are the problems and issues faced by the players in the industry at present?
A: Marketing and promoting the destination is an area we have to improve on. We cannot be complacent and believe Sri Lanka will sell on its own but very aggressively position ourselves, as our competition in the region is doing so very effectively committing enormous resources.
Another issue is the ad hoc increase in levies and taxes which happens at short notice. We are not against increases but they should be reasonable and due notice should be given as major tour operators finalise their brochures, nearly six months in advance.
Q: How can these issues be overcome and how can the central government, local government and the relevant line ministries support Sri Lanka Tourism?
A: Issue of marketing has been addressed with SLTDA and we have had joint industry meeting with all stakeholders including SriLankan Airlines. Other issues continue to be addressed by SLAITO with relevant authorities on a regular basis.
Q: One of the most pressing needs for the tourism industry is rooms. As the number of rooms is increased and many new hotels are added, how will this impact the natural environment and the social structure of rural environments where many of these projects are likely to be based?
A: Development should not harm the environment. In fact it should add value to the environment and communities that live around it. I am happy to say that this ethos is practiced by the majority which is venturing into new projects in rural locations. The present day traveller is educated, they believe in sustainability and their choice of hotel can be influenced by its environmental practices.
Q: What is the role of SLAITO in the tourism industry in Sri Lanka at present?
A: The role of SLAITO is to represent the inbound travel industry and address their issues and concerns with the relevant authorities. The members of SLAITO are ambassadors of Sri Lanka representing our interests with tour operators spread globally.
Q: Many hoteliers believe that the future is direct engagement with clients mainly online – if so where is the role of the DMC (Destination Management Company) headed?
A: The Destination Management Companies have to change and be innovative to sustain themselves. The B to C channels have become a threat even to the foreign tour operators as more and more consumers are procuring direct, bypassing the traditional methods.