Getting the maximum out of tourism

Tuesday, 20 December 2016 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I have said it before and I will say it again: Tourism is Sri Lanka’s oil well. Like with oil, revenue will flow from it for a long, long, time. With oil, the task is to find it. Afterwards you can lick the fingers and count the cash. 

With tourism a little more hard work is required to get the jam out of the bottle. Sri Lanka gets nearly two million tourists, Thailand has 25 million and Malaysia a little more. So there is plenty of jam in the bottle.

The magic wand

Good marketing is the magic wand we must wave over all our activities to bring in the tourists. Sadly SLIM, the premier marketing institute, is not chanting the marketing mantras and participating in the dialogue on the best way forward.

As a founder member of SLIM, I would say wakey, wakey. If you don’t you will soon lose your students who will see SLIM as a B grade institution, as its top brass are not seen or heard as thought leaders in marketing!

However, in industry and the creative agencies there is a lot of excellent talent.

17-02A tourist taking pictures of tea pluckers with their baskets at a tea estate in Nuwara Eliya. There are a lot of things a tourist has not encountered before that they will find intriguing, which will be the must-share things in their daily social media missives to friends – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Three things

There are three things we need to do well in marketing terms to exploit the potential.

Identify the prime attractions that will bring in the tourists. It could be different for different countries. What brings the Chinese may well be different from what will persuade the Germans.

Create a great experience for those who visit. Bring our attractions to life with good story telling guides and audio apps. When the images have faded the stories will still remain in the mind.

China and India are the top markets. Give them authentic versions of their food. Make the Chinese feel secure. Have staff that speak Mandarin and signs in Mandarin. We do not want to see a Chinese tourist acting it out like in charades to convey to a waiter that he wants the loo!

We need to move the weight in the tourists’ wallets to our pockets and to make them feel that it was money well spent.

I have commented on the first two in earlier articles. This will focus on the third.

Where the money goes

A big chunk of what a tourist pays for the holiday will go to the airlines that bring them. Most come on organised tours and the tour operators will also pocket a chunk. What remains will go to the local hotels. But 100% of what tourists spend with their own money will remain in Sri Lanka. 

If we get our act together, the numbers can be big. If two million on average spend $100 dollars it adds up to $ 200 million. What is particularly attractive about this is that almost all of it will go to the diverse people’s private sector. 

Something interesting

There are a lot of things a tourist has not encountered before, that they will find intriguing, and then fascinating. They will be the must share things in their daily social media missives to friends.

Toddy tappers moving from tree to tree on ropes high above the ground. A fishing net being hauled in. The fine art of cutting and polishing gemstones. Peeling and rolling the cinnamon bark. Eating an egg hopper with fish curry in a wayside kade. Sampling kalu dodol, kavun, kokis and Jinadasa’s thalaguli. Falling in love with arrack. 

Even a cemetery

Little things can be fascinating. A UK Financial Times travel writer wrote this last week. “Retracing the steps of our honeymoon in Kandy, we found that the delightful lakeside town had morphed into a noisy congested city… fortunately, we found the Garrison Cemetery an acre of green shaded tranquillity founded by the British in 1817... The caretaker showed us around the 163 graves each marked by stones brought from Britain... he told us tales the dead cannot… the resting place of the last Briton killed by a wild elephant… the grave of William Mackwood who fell off his horse and was impaled on a stake while clearing the jungle,” etc.

Social media

We would like see messages like this on ace book and texts.

“Mum, we went to a jeweller outside the hotel. Sri Lanka has an amazing array of different coloured stones. I was fascinated by a untitled-646blue sapphire ring. Bob said don’t rush, think about it. That evening we were seated on the terrace and Bob looked a little flushed. Then he produced the ring from his pocket, dropped on a knee and asked me to marry him. We have been living together for six years and I thought he will never ask!”

“Hi guys, saw the amazing toddy tappers. They are like high wire trapeze artistes without a safety net! They go from tree to tree on ropes, clutching a pot, to collect the sap from the palm, which they call toddy. This is distilled to create the lovely arrack. Will bring back a bottle.”

Moira, Lucy, Anne

“Hi girls, the report on day 2! On the way to Kandy our guide suggested a comfort stop at Jinadasa’s cafe. He also said they had nice local sweets. So we said bring the lot. Kavun is like a cup cake with a top knot. Gently sweet, a bit chewy. Nice. Kokis is small and circular with holes like a very crisp waffle. Will go well with a cold beer. The highlight was kalu dodol. It is like a hard jelly. Lovely texture and mouth feel. The sweet flavours just explode in your mouth. The speciality of the cafe was Jinadasa’s own thalaguli. It’s like a large soft toffee with a unique sweetness. When you eat one you want another. Great experience, never had anything like these sweets before.”


One of the very special things we have is Buddhism. Statues everywhere, temples, bo tree shrines and in the ancient cities great dagobas. Most tourists are likely to be curious. “What is Buddhism?” they will ask their tour guides and get a not-very-clear explanation, as it cannot be explained in a few sentences. There is a great opportunity to have half-day sessions on Buddhism at temples in the tourist areas.

Buddhism does not conflict with anyone’s religion. The learned monk the Venerable Dr. Walpola Sri Rahula put it very succinctly: “The Buddha was only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either. He attributed all his realisation, attainments and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence.”

We should market Buddhism. Offer a half-day discourse on the Four Noble Truths and perhaps another on the Dhammapada, described by a respected writer as follows: “The Dhammapada was meant for everyone. Its 423 verses are much more than wise aphorisms to be read and reflected over. They contain that part of the Buddha’s teaching which can be grasped and put into practice by the greatest number of people by following the disciplines of the Eightfold Path.”

These course should be available in the main tourist areas.

Nisthar’s posh pink paper 

Some may wonder why Nisthar’s posh pink paper dedicated to economics, high finance, and management, is having a columnist writing about kalu dodol and thalaguli.

Relax, we have not left the world of economics. The guts of this piece is to focus on inclusive growth, which is the focus of modern economists. The old views were on getting GDP growth, by directing investment resources to where it produces the best GDP growth i.e. areas that had the best COR ratios. That is to invest where the smallest number of units of capital is required to produce one unit of GDP. This is an extension of the philosophy in business that looks for investment with the best return on capital employed.

The thrust of the new thinking is different. Even if it has a poorer COR, investment must be directed to areas which create inclusive growth where the benefits of growth encompass and permeate to all socio economic groups.


As illustrated in this article, tourism has great scope to create inclusive growth. What the tourists spend here should in every way be facilitated to go to the people’s private sector. All sectors linked to tourism should work towards this objective.

Hoteliers should push out of their clutch of activities that can be performed by the people’s private sector. Guests should be encouraged to go on local tours with locals. The Government should construct markets where local goods could be attractively displayed.

Finance is required to create small trendy restaurants and bars or shops and for small local tour operators to get vehicles, etc. The Government must provide the magic ingredient, finance, that will makes it possible for the people’s private sector to prosper.