Tuesday, 15 October 2013 00:00
Whilst Sri Lanka has registered over a million tourists visiting the country, we see the leading wildlife park attracting the highest number of foreign visitors.
SLTD reports that in 2011 there were almost 99,000 foreign visitors and 217,000 local visitors whilst in 2012 the numbers are said to have crossed the 700,000 visitors with just one day – 13 February – reporting 1,000 foreign visitors and 500 locals netting an record revenue of 2.6 million a day, which gives us the changing dynamics taking place in the landscape of Sri Lanka.
One of the key questions that need to be focused on is whether Sri Lanka is going to drive for increasing the number of rooms or attracting a higher end visitor to the country. The answer can be both, but the reality is that to construct a new property the gestation time is a minimum of three years and at a Internal Rate of Return of around 12-15% and pay back that can range from eight to 10 years and is a challenging decision when the market broadly is throwing out many other growth opportunities that are much more attractive – especially if your company is a large conglomerate operating in a diverse product portfolio.
On the other hand if one is upgrading a property with architectural changes that will give distinction and cut away from the competition around the neighbourhood, the investment can be in the tune of Rs. 600-2,000 million. This will also entail the change in shift of the demand chain that one works in meaning travel agents and end customers who are prepared to surrender a higher room rate for the new value proposition. Maybe CHOGM can be an ideal opportunity for us to showcase some of the uniqueness of brand Sri Lanka from a product portfolio angle and thereby see if we can attract the higher end tourist into the country.
A point that must be noted from a demand side of the business is that almost 75% of the 16,000 odd hotel rooms in the country are located in the beach belt. In my view we cannot price a room rate above the 250 dollar threshold as a typical beach holiday seeker will compare Si Lanka’s proposition as against the Maldives that can offer better beaches and an exclusive beach frontage to a typical traveller at around 450 dollars.
Whilst we can argue that Sri Lanka offers more than beaches, this proposition needs to further discussed as research has revealed that purpose of travel by a foreigner hinges on a single-minded reason, be it beaches, wildlife or culture based.
This means that strictly from a marketing perspective, we have no option but to practice strategy differentiated marketing, meaning separate business propositions for identified key market segments.
One option of differentiation is driving up wildlife tourism and its relevance to today’s emerging landscape of Sri Lanka.
Wildlife tourism can be broadly defined as trips made to destinations with the main purpose being to observe the local fauna and flora. This can be simply explained as an activity of watching animals in the wild and it covers all types of animals – large mammals, flock of birds, all kinds of insects and even marine life. This is essentially an observational activity although in some countries some interactions are allowed in control conditions. This market is worth around a 12 million trips each year, with Africa accounting for around half of all these trips with the hot spot destinations being Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana.
My pick is Kenya for game watching as the big five can be spotted much more easily in its natural habitat but if one has done game in Kenya you would have experienced the extent one has to travel from Nairobi, maybe right up to Samburu or even the great Mara. The 500 million dollars that it contributes to the Kenyan economy in value is almost 14% of GDP in Kenya, which makes the difference. On the other hand the Galapagos Island which relies exclusively on wildlife tourism accounts for 60 million dollars to the nation’s economy. Sri Lanka on the other hand has crossed the one billion dollar mark in tourism and I feel the time is right to go global given that we have waited for almost four years for hard product development like building of hotel properties.
Best in class
A core group of wildlife enthusiasts working on the concept of ‘conservation tourism’ has released a set of data on the attributes of how easy it is to actually see wildlife, termed observability, and time required to sight the game. It has also looked at the what species can be seen as charismatic, like for instance the leopard or the sloth bear that can be sighted in Yala.
The targeted travellers essentially come from the US, Europe, mainly Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. There has been an emerging segment travelling from Canada and Australia in the recent past. The profile of the traveller is around the 50-65 year age group, who have just about retired and are wealthy in nature, healthy and active and on average spend around $ 475-1,500 per day, which makes this target group attractive for the private sector of Sri Lanka tourism to seriously consider.
1.We need to first clearly demarcate and profile the geographic locations that offer wildlife in Sri Lanka. Udawalawe and Minneriya can be ranked as the best place for sighting the Asian elephant whilst Yala and Wilpattu can undoubtedly be ranked the best places in the world to watch leopards. To be honest, they cannot be even compared to the great parks of Kenya where leopard spotting is very rare which should be the key value proposition that can be highlighted globally. Trinco, Kalpitiya and Mirissa can be highlighted for the sighting of blue whales and the sperm whales whilst Kumana is ideally situated for bird watching, which is very strong growth market globally and dominated by Bempton Cliffs in UK, Keolandeo in India and Pantanal in Brazil. We can also market the rainforests and biodiversity areas like Sinharaja forest and Horton Plains, which have now been declared World Heritage Sites.
2.We need to architecture the brand guidelines in each of these product areas that Sri Lankan wildlife showcases, so that there is consistency of the sub brands that emerge from each park. Ideally only one characteristic animal species must be highlighted in each game park so that brand positioning is easier.
3.This brand guideline must be then developed to a brand toolkit template where a documentary, TV clips, brochures and pullouts are provided by a separate unit of the Tourism Ministry to the private sector for promotional purposes. The private sector can use this template to include one’s own lodging facility (hotel) but copied to the regulator for reference.
4.This unit under Sri Lanka Tourism must architecture the code of conduct when watching game and visiting the game parks that will include the officials of the park, the safari vehicle drivers and owners, highlighting the principles of conservation tourism.
5.The lodging facilities can have the architecture of African safaris but may be some support can be provided with certain guidelines on the basic architecture of the hotels so that there is a central theme like eco tourism.
6.There has to be monitoring and certification at periodic levels. For instance in Kenya if a safari jeep goes off track to watch game, the fine is as high as 600 dollars and the confiscation of the driver’s license. This also gives exclusivity.
7.International media must be covered by the regulators to build this niche market with vehicles like CNN, National Geography, Animal Planet, Lonely Planet as well as social media like Facebook, Four Square, YouTube, Twitter and a dedicated website operated by the Ministry linking to the lodging sites and code of conduct norms.
8.All national events can link to highlighting game parks for endorsements. For instance, the ICC world cup celebrities can be used to tour the game parks and this can be a string PR tool in markets of UK and Australia.
9.Nationally dedicated travel and tourism fairs, magazines and tour operators can be targeted that specialise in wildlife tourism.
10.Set a target for revenue collection from this segment at next year’s National Budget with a minimum room rate in consultation with the private sector.
Given that CHOGM will attract a cross section of customers and nationalities that Sri Lanka will not attract during a given time period, we can use the event to highlight the attractiveness of the rich wildlife of Sri Lanka. This can include brochures in the hotel rooms, excursions post the event, complimentary DVDs and run ups in the in-house TV channels.
There can also be media tours organised for the visiting journalists, CNN or Aljazeera to name a few, but it must be targeting the audiences that we want to attract from overseas, which means that a great deal of planning will be required to get the best out of CHOGM for brand Sri Lanka.
Whilst there are some burning issues that the industry is grappling with, we need to keep in mind that as a country that is coming out of a 30-year war, some systemic corrections will take place in the years to come and we must be ready for this change. Some can be policy-led, some may be ad hoc operational aspects. The challenge right now is, how do we exploit CHOGM to develop this unique proposition for the country?
[The author is an award winning business professional by practice who has unique experience of serving the country at national level in the public and private sector. Rohantha is a wildlife enthusiast and was placed 35th in the world at a photographic exhibition on a shot taken in Samburu Game Park in Kenya. He is the Head of National Portfolio Development for the United Nations (UNOPS) for Sri Lanka and Maldives.]