Following are excerpts from an interview with former President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and currently Managing Director Aitken Spence Travels Ltd. Gehan Perera
Q: The private sector, line ministries and the regulatory bodies involved in tourism agree that the time is right for a long-term strategic plan for Sri Lanka Tourism. Is there a strategic plan that has been created with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders?
A: Yes, there is a clear plan that the entire industry worked together in which SLAITO played an important role. We presented a document titled the ‘Way Forward document,’ which has been included in the Government’s Strategic plan. We are very pleased the Government has accepted our plan.
Q: Has such a plan been discussed in various tourism forums where both the private sector and the Government jointly function?
A: The plan referred above has been discussed extensively at several forums and agreed by all stakeholders.
Q: What are areas that this strategic plan addresses or areas and topics a future plan should address from the perspective of SLAITO?
A: What SLAITO would like to see is the speedy implementation of the plan to achieve the overall objectives of the industry. We have seen deviations from the plan such as introduction of minimum rates visa fees, arbitrary increases in entrance fees, etc. which has been counter-productive. We can easily achieve the overall country objectives if we have a clear policy and stick to the agreed plan to increase the tourist arrivals and revenue.
An area we must work harder is to get all the different Government agencies to work closer with the tourism authorities to achieve the country’s tourism objectives. Not doing so can be detrimental to tourism and can hamper the Government’s efforts to fast track our economy.
Q: For the last 30 years the operative term has been survival and strategies that enable industries to survive in a negative situation. However that has now changed. Do you believe the industry has come to grips and understood the need in terms of strategic positioning for Sri Lanka?
A: The skills needed today are obviously different to what was required during the survival mode. The industry has many experienced professionals who know what needs to be done and the importance of strategic positioning. Both SLAITO and the THAASL professionals need to work together with the Government authorities to strategically position Sri Lanka.
Q: What are the points of reference in terms of a strategic plan which is relevant for today and into the next 10 years? What aspects should we address in a strategic plan?
A: The key issue is to increase the inventory of quality rooms, upgrade transportation services to meet international standards, enhance the visitor experiences at tourist attractions and improve infrastructure facilities. We should all work together to increase the pace of action in these areas as currently the development of these initiatives is rather slow. Very few hotels have come up in the last two years. We need to find out the impediments that are preventing new hotels coming up faster and fix same. At the end of the day, if we do not have the capacity we will not be able to have the desired numbers and increased revenue.
Q: With the tourism industry structured as it is in Sri Lanka with many small SME companies and individuals involved in the industry, how do you see a strategic plan being implemented?
A: The SME sector is a very important segment and the success of Sri Lanka’s Tourism will depend on how well they will engage in the industry. However, looking at it from a strategic planning perspective we should have a greater vision as we have a unique opportunity for the country which we should not miss. Hence, it is important we get large international players to invest in Sri Lanka.
The Shangri-la group is an excellent choice. We must incentivise and get more of such companies to invest in Sri Lanka. If this happens the local conglomerates will follow suit and eventually there will be a positive environment for SME players to also engage in enterprises and benefit from the overall growth.
Q: There have been many discussions on ‘Nation Branding’ as a part of the strategic policy for tourism. What are SLAITO’s views on ‘Nation Branding’ and its role within the strategic plan for tourism in Sri Lanka?
A: SLAITO considers nation branding of paramount importance. We need a much more coordinated effort at national level to get this done. Unfortunately, there was much confusion in the branding done for tourism and we were not able to get a clear message across to the consumers. SLAITO would be very happy to work with the authorities and a professional agency to rollout nation branding.
Q: What lessons can we learn from neighbouring countries that have already undertaken and implemented an overarching strategic policy for tourism?
A: There are many good examples around us where countries have successfully implemented strategic policies for tourism. Maldives is an excellent example where capacity has been built year-on-year and they have achieved sustained growth in arrivals and income.
Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong are also good examples where arrivals are maintained at very high levels. Cambodia and Vietnam are countries that got into tourism relatively late but have shown exponential growth, far surpassing the arrivals Sri Lanka has achieved in peace time. One common thread in all these countries is they all recognise the economic importance of tourism and commit substantial budgets to market their destination aggressively.
Tourism is a very competitive business. In order to be successful, we have to compete with all of the above destinations both in terms of product and price. We have been successful in attracting a large number of persons of Sri Lankan origin holding foreign passports to visit Sri Lanka in the last few years, which is a very positive phenomenon. However, it is much more challenging to attract genuine tourists who have a plethora of choices in today’s very competitive world of tourism.