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Sri Lanka Tourism lives on the edge


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One of Sri Lanka’s focused industries which has attracted dollar investments and share of voice globally in the last three years is the tourism sector. Essentially private sector-driven, the industry has crossed the $ 4 billion mark and attracted over two million tourists into the country in 2017. 

Whilst the surface numbers look good, given that there is a growth of 3.2% and in absolute number 65,595 visitors, a deep dive reveals the challenges the country faces.

Living on the edge – global issue

A fact that needs to be understood from the data of 2017 is that ‘Tourism lives on the edge’. This is a global phenomenon of the travel and tourism industry as it cannot be separated from the context in which it operates, be it political, state of war, health issues or the economic spikes that keep impacting the industry.

If we take Sri Lanka, it is not an exception to the global phenomenon of living on the edge. If we look back at 2017, the first setback was the partial closure of the country’s main airport from January to April where many airlines either scaled down operations or completely halted flights to Colombo. Then in April, the southern half of the country experienced devastating floods that affected access to many resort areas, resulting in adverse international media publicity that impacted the forward bookings. 

When the country was just coming out of the natural disaster, the dengue epidemic hit the country with the highest affected area being the commercial capital Colombo that lasted several months. This led to negative reports on international media, resulting in countries issuing a travel advisory based on the issue or health concerns to its citizens.

Whilst the city was getting bombarded with dengue clearance programs, almost a million people were affected by the severe drought in the central and northern parts of the country that had a ripple effect to the tourism industry during the year which according to industry sources impacted forward bookings.

3 brand custodians 

In the backdrop of the environmental issues Sri Lanka was also challenged with a manmade issue that created living on the edge a ‘share of life’. Believe it or not Sri Lanka Tourism has had three brand custodians in the last three years (2015-2017). 

Normally in brand marketing we tend to give a person a three- to four-year window to show impact to a business. The logic being that one must understand the brand and the peculiarities of the industry and thereafter engage in stakeholder consultations and research, which can lead to the development of a brand strategy with a new ‘eye’. 

Terror and tourism

Another area that hit headlines globally is the link between terrorism and tourism and its implications. The attacks in Brussels and Paris, the British tourists injured in Tunisia and the shooting down of a Russian airliner in Sharm-el-Sheikh shocked the world in the last two years and jolted the global economy that is already in recessionary behaviour. Tourist numbers in key markets registered an immediate decline, with the developing world hardest hit. 

France suffered a 10% fall and Kenya 25%, while Turkey faced a drop of almost 50%. Brussels grappled to recover, creating a huge stress on local jobs, which had a trickledown effect to ordinary families that rely on the industry for their livelihoods. 

With over 200 million people globally relying on tourism – one in 12 global jobs – the importance of protecting the sector from external shocks, especially in more fragile developing economies, is very important. It will be worth highlighting that the cost of terrorism of the 30-year war in Sri Lanka on the tourism industry was $ 6 billion as per the research done by specialists. However, this calculation is only the direct implication based on room nights whilst indirectly the cost can be as high as 20 billion given the shared economy that exists in the tourism industry.

Maldives – living on the edge?

In this background, the Maldives Government is strategically looking at the bigger picture in its tourism agenda overriding the ‘living on the edge’ syndrome of the sector which is a global issue.

The policymakers in Maldives are focusing on the opportunities in education, health, gender parity and environmental protection, all of which feeds into a robust and resilient tourist sector. The country is increasing its appetite for younger middle income Maldivians to launch their own entrepreneurial projects in the tourism industry on the ethos of the shared economy. Jobs are blossoming out in the fields of infrastructure, health tourism and technology, which is an interesting insight for an island nation.

I remember during my UN days whenever we met the Maldives public sector, they would highlight how the nation was the best MDG+ country in South Asia. Literacy rate at 98% and extreme poverty non-existent in the Maldives has resulted in a vibrant tourism sector – with improved offerings and a better educated, diverse and engaged workforce which ideally fits the strategic development of the industry. Let me do a deep dive on their strategic direction.

The similarity – Sri Lanka and Maldives

The country holds 26 natural atolls categorised into 20 atolls for administrative purposes. The industry is just 20 years old in contrast to Sri Lanka that is touching 50 years. The key source markets to the Maldives are China, UK, Germany, Italy, Russian Federation, France, Japan, Switzerland, India and Korea, which means the market mix is similar to Sri Lanka though the customers that each of the countries attract are very different. 

Maldives – Customer insight

The competitor landscape is very similar to Sri Lanka. Mauritius, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Madagascar to be specific.

The key insights of the Maldivian consumer is natural beauty being the key motivator for travel to the Maldives. Rest and relaxation is mentioned by 63% whilst the internet is the most important source of information to discover the Maldives. To be exact, pre-arrival behaviours is 26% via internet, 22% through word of mouth and 14% through travel agents move through the purchasing process.

Incidentally, one out of 10 international visitors to the Maldives use ‘Visit Maldives’ as their travel guide to Maldives, which tells us the power of a strong cutting-edge communication campaign – on which Sri Lanka is yet trying to get its act together. A point to note is that without a strong ‘creative’ it is foolish to build a tourism story, which is what experts say. The Maldivian tourism campaign ‘Sunny Side of Life’ beautifully captures the essence of the brand. Maybe it’s a point to deliberate. 

If we do a parallel is Sri Lanka, a key consumer insight from 2016 data is that less that 50% indulged in experiential tourism with the highest visited place being 27% and the location Sigiriya, followed by Pinnawala at 19% and Yala at 13% visitors on the 2.05 million visitors in 2016. The question is, can we drive harder this new trend of experiential tourism?

Maldives Tourism Master Plans – 4 in 35 years

To my mind the key pick up on how Maldivian beats the ‘living on the edge’ syndrome is that Maldives Tourism has had only four tourism master plans in a 35-year timespan. The first in 1982, the second Tourism Master Plan was in 1995, the third was in 2007 and the fourth Tourism Master Plan which came to the market in 2013 is said to hold ground up to 2017. 

To me, what this implies is that the best brains get together and develop a plan and then the policymakers make space for it to be rolled out to the market. A point to note is that first the creatives are developed on the communication campaign and it is only thereafter that the media rollout takes place. Sri Lanka does this the other way round.

Once when I met the Maldives Tourism Marketing team, what they shared was that many adjustments had to be made to the plans on the run but strictly speaking, the strategy was allowed to kick in for a minimum six to eight years under one brand custodian so that the results could be analysed before it was once again taken back to the drawing boards. A lesson for Sri Lanka.

Maldives – Focused vision

If one digs deeper on the strategic direction of Maldives Tourism, what we see is that it is driven on an architecture that strictly ensures brand consistency. Maldives Tourism is very clear that they want to be the best tropical island destination in the world, the most exclusive destination in South Asia, the top tourism earner in South Asia, and be an example of sustainable tourism development in small island nations. 

Maldives – Cutting - edge strategy

The strategy is ruthless on decision making with an exclusive imagery of the destination in the source markets and positioned ‘premium’ destination worldwide, based on the strategic positioning. The brand custodians ensure that the new products maintain this architecture so that sustainability of the marketing campaign is ensured. This to my mind is the brilliance of the marketing strategy of Maldives Tourism that Sri Lanka needs to take a lead from.

Something that really caught my eye was the key propositions Maldives tourism has conceptualised and is driving strategy on, focused on just four key promises:

1) Maldives...the romantic side of life for honeymooners and couples to portray absolute privacy associated with the Maldives product

2) Maldives...the colourful side of life for scuba divers and underwater enthusiasts to portray the vibrant and colourful coral reefs and their flora and fauna 

3) Maldives...the thrilling side of life for water-sports lovers and adventure seekers to convey the wide range of water-sports and other thrilling activities that Maldives offers

4) Maldives...the spiritual side of life for tourists who seek revitalisation of their body and mind to communicate the spa and wellness product

One cannot have a clearer gold standard action plan based on the best practice of segmentation, targeting and positioning.

Lesson for Sri Lanka

I guess Sri Lanka needs to just go back to practicing the basics; just like my guru late Prof. Uditha Liyanage once said: “Be brilliant in the basics.” This is exactly what the Maldives is doing in driving the tourism sector – segment, target, positioning. Thereafter, derive the marketing objectives and key actions that must be scaled down to a powerful creative that can then be hosted on traditional media or emerging media like digital platforms. 

Sri Lanka keeps zigzagging with the digital campaign being launched prior to agreeing on the new creatives, further adding to the ‘living on the edge’ phenomenon. The question is, when will Sri Lanka learn?

(The thoughts are strictly the writer’s personal views. Writing is a hobby he pursues and has no links to the positions he holds in the private and public sector of Sri Lanka or internationally.)


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