Talking Tourism 

With Christmas just a day away and the holiday season well and truly upon us, the Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs Ministry this week held its Annual Tourism Festival on 22 and 23 December.

According to Tourism Development Minister John Amaratunga, the festival, which comes as Sri Lanka expects to attract a record 2 million tourist arrivals in 2016, was initiated partly as a result of tourist complaints surrounding the lack of sufficient entertainment after sunset. That these complaints were heeded is nothing other than a good sign. However, it does signal at some deep-seated issues.

While reactive measures might solve problems of the present, it’s only proactive decision-making that can take the country forward. Sri Lanka has been floundering around for years without a solid branding strategy, while also lacking a cohesive marketing strategy and campaign which should be a mutually-agreed upon private-public partnership (PPP). There are various promotional exhibitions that have taken place in foreign capitals in the past but they are not based on a master plan to promote the market destination. There is much more work that needs to be done in this area.

Another key problem repeatedly highlighted by the industry is the lack of accurate data. For years, the Government has been releasing numbers that do not differentiate between the formal and informal sectors adequately enough to understand how many foreigners are tourists, where they stay, how much they spend and their level of expectations. Without in-depth data, policymakers cannot understand the direction the industry should take, which affects the entire value chain.

But while these are all legitimate problems, which require a holistic change in approach to fix, there are still some ways that Sri Lanka’s global footprint can be increased in the short to medium term.

For a start, the Government could begin by adequately marketing Sri Lanka’s abundance of natural attractions. Marine life and shipwreck diving are potential cash cows that are being woefully under-utilised, with the only promotions of such activities coming through private individuals whose life work has been preserving and documenting its world class potential. The marketing doesn’t need to include a wholesale brand strategy, but simply liaising with travel agents and tour operators and offering special deals would suffice initially.

Next, a revamp of the Sri Lanka tourism ministry website is in order, where information on attractions is readily available for anyone who might simply Google ‘Sri Lankan vacation.’ In addition to this, the Tourism Ministry could also reach out to individuals already working in fields such as marine life research, and engage with them on what action needs to be taken to preserve and nurture the resources we already possess.

These are but a few simple proactive decisions that can be taken, and really is the least that can be done in order to better utilise the riches this nation has been blessed with. In recent years, the country’s slogan has veered from ‘Land Like No Other’ to ‘Small Miracle’ to ‘Wonder of Asia,’ without clearly communicating the island’s competitive advantage. If we continue on this path, there might not be a competitive advantage left to communicate.

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