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Maldives lessons for Sri Lanka Tourism: 4 plans in 35 years

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 5 April 2016 00:01


Whilst many of us are proud of the performance of the tourism sector of Sri Lanka with arrivals crossing two million visitors and foreign exchange earning touching three billion dollars for the country, sometimes it’s interesting to understand how competitor eco systems are performing so that the best practices can be picked and learned for implementation in Sri Lanka.

DFT-14The Maldives’ new products strictly adhere to the overall brand template that is supported by a focussed communication strategy 



Terror and tourism

Whilst we should pick the best practices globally, an area that has become fashionable among many thought leaders lately is the link between terrorism and tourism and its implications. 

The attacks in Brussels, Paris, British tourists injured in Tunisia and the shooting down of a Russian airliner in Sharm-el-Sheikh sure shocked the world sure jolted the global economy that is already in recessionary behaviour. Tourist numbers in key markets are registering a decline, with the developing world hardest hit. 

France suffered a 10% fall, Kenya 25%, while Turkey faces a drop of almost 50%. Brussels grappling to recover has created huge stress on local jobs, which has 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 in my view. But the million dollar answer that the DFT-14-01world is trying to get to is how.

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 comes to poke in the tourism industry.


Maldives – Visionary view

In this background, the Maldives Government is strategically looking at the at the bigger picture in its tourism agenda though the industry is challenged with a negative performance due to the ISIS treat related implication on tourism arrivals.

The policymakers in Maldives are focusing on the opportunities in education, health, gender parity and environmental protection all, feeds into a robust and resilient tourist sector. The country is increasing its appetite for younger middle income Maldivian’s 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 yet remember during my UN days whenever we met the Maldives public sector they would be proud about the nation been 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, which is a fact. Let me do a deep dive to their strategic direction.


Maldives – Tourism

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 islands 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 – Competitors 

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, the 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 that 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 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. 


Maldives Tourism Master plans – 4 in 35 years

This is the key pickup that Sri Lanka policymakers need to think about. Maldives has had only four tourism master plans in a 35 year time span. If I may track back, the first was 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. The other day, 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 kick in for a minimum six to eight years so that the results can be analysed before it was once again taken back to the drawing boards. This is where Sri Lanka differ. I know for a fact the tea industry of Sri Lanka has had as many as 69 reports and plans by different stakeholders and none have been implemented. 


Maldives Tourism focused vision

If one digs deeper, the strategic direction of Maldives Tourism what we see is that it is driven on an architecture that strictly ensures brand consistency, in contrast to the runaway informal sector that accounts for 60% of Sri Lanka tourism revenue which is not even registered in the relevant government authority.

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. 

In contrast, in Sri Lanka if we examine the new properties coming up in Sri Lanka, over three quarter happens to be in the three star category that inevitable tells us the type of tourists that will visit Sri Lanka in the next couple of years. The question is, given the limited resources we have and carrying capacity that the island holds, is it the three star visitor that Sri Lanka must give space for? Desk research has intimated that international internet booking sites host almost 5,400 tourism lodging entities of Sri Lanka whilst Government records indicate only some 1,500, which gives us the difference in game plans of the two destinations.


Maldives cutting edge objectives

In the case of Maldives, what we see is that a ruthless decision has been taken to enhance the exclusive image of the destination in the source markets and position Maldives as a ‘premium’ destination worldwide and based on the strategic positioning the authority will ensure the new products maintain this architecture so that sustainability of the marketing campaign is insured. This to my mind is the brilliance of the marketing strategy of Tourism Maldives 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:

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

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 

Maldives...the thrilling side of life for watersports lovers and adventure seekers to convey the wide range of watersports and other thrilling activities that Maldives offer

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


Implications to Sri Lanka

I guess we need 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 Maldives is doing in driving the tourism sector. Segment, target, position. Thereafter, derive the marketing objectives and key actions that must be scaled down to a powerful creative that then can be hosted on traditional media or emerging media like digital platforms. One has to follow this discipline and not zigzag. 


(Dr. Rohantha Athukorala acknowledges the research done by the Colombo University whilst the thoughts expressed are strictly his personal views. Writing is just a hobby he pursues and has no links to the positions he holds in the Private or Public Sector of Sri Lanka or internationally.)

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