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“Tourism earnings have risen 11.6% year-on-year to $ 4.4 b in 2018”: Serendib Hotels Chairman


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Serendib Hotels PLC Chairman Abbas Esufally says Sri Lanka tourism should highlight more the authenticity that’s alive in Sri Lanka’s heritage, cuisine, landscapes, architecture, rich culture, wildlife and mostly its people, to draw in experience-seeking travellers.Abbas Esufally a Chartered Accountant by profession has over 35 years’ experience in the tourism industry, and has played a pivotal role in expanding the Hemas Group’s Leisure interest. Esufally is a Member of the Tourism Ministry Advisory Council appointed by the Minister of Tourism and is the Honorary Consul General of Bhutan in Sri Lanka.Following are excerpts of an interview:

By Cathrine Weerakkody 


Q: Tourism is key to Sri Lanka’s current economic future, given our massive debt burden. Are you satisfied with the revenue earned by the industry in general and what is the strategy to drive up the spend?

In the last 10 years, Sri Lanka has seen a steady growth in foreign tourism and, recently, The Lonely Planet Guide named Sri Lanka as top destination in 2019 based on its diverse and authentic offerings. Tourism earnings are estimated to have risen 11.6% year-on-year to $ 4.4 billion in 2018, according a press release issued by Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA). Sri Lanka received little over 2.33 million tourists in 2018, a growth of 10.3% from the previous year. This is a significant growth. However, taking into account the potential and expectations, Sri Lanka can do much, much better. 

Serendib Hotels PLC Chairman Abbas Esufally

 

Q: Can you suggest a few key strategies to be adopted to drive up the spend?

Key strategies are as follows:

  • A strategic plan to be agreed upon for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry
  • A strong, comprehensive and sustainable global PR and marketing campaign to be launched to drive demand for the destination.
  • Government policies to be formulated to promote investments.
  • Develop sustainable policies for the fauna, flora, wildlife and other cultural assets.
  • Creation and marketing of differentiated tourism products which offer unique experiences to the traveller. 
  • Pain points in the destination to be addressed to make Sri Lanka visitor friendly, e.g. congestion at Colombo airport, domestic transportation, law and order, health and safety standards, etc.

 

Q:  How important is tourism to the Sri Lankan economy taking a five-year horizon and do we have a master plan like Singapore that does 20 million?

The current administration developed a master plan under the title ‘Strategic Plan of Sri Lanka Tourism 2017-2020’ with a five-year horizon. It is a comprehensive document taking all aspects into consideration. The execution part is yet to take off and hopefully we will see progress in time to come. 

 

Q: What are the reasons for prospective tourists to visit Sri Lanka?

Based on research suggesting the most endearing feature of Sri Lanka as a destination is its authenticity. Sri Lanka tourism should highlight more the authenticity that’s alive in Sri Lanka’s heritage, cuisine, landscapes, architecture, rich culture, wildlife and mostly its people, to draw in experience-seeking travellers.

 

Q: What are the main types of tourism in Sri Lanka?

Beach holiday, adventure tourism, culture and heritage, experiential tourism, wildlife, flora and fauna, sports, MICE, entertainment are some of the leading types in Sri Lanka.  

 

Q: What are the leading markets for the Sri Lankan tourism industry? Are the promotions for 2019 targeting new markets?

 India, China, UK, Germany, France, Middle East, Japan and CIS countries are the primary markets for Sri Lanka. Secondary markets are Scandinavia, Benelux, Italy, Australia/New Zealand and Japan, Most of the promotions are targeted to grow these leading markets which have reasonable connectivity. However there are efforts to target some of the potential new markets as well. 

 

Q:  What are the challenges faced by the tourism industry and how does the Government and industry plan to overcome these challenges?

 The last few years has seen a huge shift where the consumer journey for travel is primarily digital which meant the brand platform had to be amplifiable on social media, with communications being content-driven and image-focused. Sri Lanka as a destination also lacked a global communication plan and a roll out. This has hurt the destination, severely impacting the low season where arrivals and occupancy levels are struggling to show the desired growth.   

 

The country is diverse and is blessed with unparalleled natural resources, wildlife, unique cultural heritage and warm and friendly locals. Being the number one destination means that we will see a tremendous growth in tourists visiting the island in the years to come.

 

Q: It has been observed that the tourism industry is focused on numbers instead of the investment they make in the country. How can the Government and the tourist industry promote sustainable tourism?

Growth in numbers is a result of several actions which support the industry’s growth. Focused and strategic investments in programs to market and generate awareness of the destination, investments in sustainable policies, investments in innovative tourism products, MICE facilities, etc. In order to attract a higher yielding traveller, serious investments are required and Government policies should support and encourage such interventions. 

According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), developing sustainable policies and an industry is a key priority. Sustainable tourism is a long-term goal for Sri Lanka, and the importance of this cannot be underestimated for Sri Lanka to work towards a positive overall balance in environmental, socio-cultural, economic and experiential impacts for tourists and locals. 

The country is diverse and is blessed with unparalleled natural resources, wildlife, unique cultural heritage and warm and friendly locals. Being the number one destination means that we will see a tremendous growth in tourists visiting the island in the years to come.

 

Q: What are some of recent initiations for promoting sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka?

SLTDA partnered with the GSTC to conduct a comprehensive training on sustainability criteria to Sri Lankan hotels on the universally accepted GSTC sustainable tourism standards. This training was attended by over 40 hotel representatives along with the tourism sector association representatives, a strong delegation of key officials from government agencies directly and indirectly related to the tourism sector such as in wildlife, coast conservation, forestry, urban development, cultural heritage, environment, industry associations – tourist hotels, tour operators and travel agents, etc. too participated. 

A partnership has been created with the United Nations Development Programme UNDP BIOFIN Sri Lanka and SLTDA to obtain technical assistance through Bio Diversity Finance Initiative BIOFIN Project. This is designed to establish a National Sustainable Tourism Certification Scheme by providing a platform to identify respective aspirations of each party to move towards a mutually-beneficial outcomes with the national interest as the foremost objective. Given the vast and complex nature of all service providers in Sri Lanka tourism, initial sustainability certification be selectively carried out to a representative cross-section in the accommodation sector. 

 

The last few years has seen a huge shift where the consumer journey for travel is primarily digital which meant the brand platform had to be amplifiable on social media, with communications being content-driven and image-focused. Sri Lanka as a destination also lacked a global communication plan and a roll out. This has hurt the destination, severely impacting the low season where arrivals and occupancy levels are struggling to show the desired growth.  

 

Q: Sri Lanka is currently ranked as the top country for travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet and many others. What is the tourist arrival target for 2019-2020 and how does the industry plan to achieve this target?

Sri Lanka is an increasingly popular destination for international travellers, as well as for expatriates returning home to visit friends and relatives. In 2013 and 2019 Lonely Planet nominated Sri Lanka as the #1 destination in the world to visit; in 2015 Forbes magazine ranked the island among the “top ten coolest countries” to visit. Global influencers, including the Condé Nast Traveler, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, the Guardian, and the New York Times identified Sri Lanka as a top location to visit in 2016. With this, and the new tourism promotional campaigns which are expected to get off the ground, Sri Lanka Tourism has upped the tourist arrival target in 2019 to 3 million arrivals from 2.5 million in 2018, whilst eyeing four million tourist arrivals by 2020. The Tourism and Christian Affairs Ministry has a budget to spend Rs. 65 million in the first phase of the digital campaign with an objective to reach over 10 million audiences on social and other digital channels. According to the Tourism and Christian Affairs Ministry, a $ 3.5 million worth digital marketing campaign had already started targeting India, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. 

 

Q:  How is the Government-industry relationship working out? And what more needs to be done?

Sri Lanka Tourism is virtually 100% funded and owned by the private sector. The Government’s role should primarily be to:

  • Provide the necessary infrastructure
  • Formulate policy and implementation of same
  • Provide the required regulatory framework
  • Address the law and order matters
  • Protect our cultural and wildlife assets 
  • Monitor compliance of all private sector establishments with the health and safety, fire and sustainability guidelines
  • The Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005 has envisaged a healthy public sector/private sector partnership which enables both parties to work together in unison for the betterment of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. Thus far, the cooperation has generally worked well, but as always, it could be improved. The last couple of years we have seen a steady improvement in the partnership and hopefully this will enable Sri Lanka tourism to reach its long-term aspirations and goals and thereby make it the most significant contributor to the Sri Lankan economy.

 

(The writer is a graduate in financial analysis, Associate of CIMA and has a Master’s Degree in Financial Management and is currently reading for a PhD in England.)


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