The fact remains that despite three years of peace and increasing numbers of visitors to Sri Lanka, our tourism industry is lacking traction. The wisdom that the industry is lacking direction and movement finally seems to have dawned on those responsible for marketing Sri Lanka as a tourist destination. As the industry struggles to deliver on the promise of making Sri Lanka the miracle of Asia, one is reminded of a popular Japanese proverb which sums up our situation well, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
Undue haste could result in irreparable damage to our nascent tourism industry. That Sri Lanka is rushing to develop a tourism product without a vision is clear from the conflicting and often contradictory positions taken by those responsible for steering our tourism strategy. To avoid the many strategy pitfalls, it is important that we stop to take stock, and bring into proper perspective the many challenges the country faces as we evolve a workable tourism plan for the next five years.
We all agree that we must have a strategy. The question is do we put our mind to it? If you are like me and many others seeking answers to this crucial question, the answers you receive are akin to the parable of blind men describing an elephant.
As the parable so aptly demonstrates, our strategy appears to be more about interest groups, their understanding and perspectives. The danger lies therein; the distinct possibility that a collection of disparate ideas being force fitted into a plan which could ultimately lack the laser beam focus that is required to compete with some of the better known tourism hotspots. Putting a wish list together and presenting it as strategy is best described in a pithy Sinhala saying; “vedhamahaththayage beheth wattoruwawage” loosely translated as the “the local healers prescription which includes a little bit of everything.”
If you examine carefully the reasons for lack of focus and clarity, there are two contributing factors; first there is confusion as to what strategy really is! i.e. we are guilty of using labels and terminology loosely. Second, because we lack clarity we elevate and label operational elements as strategy.
To illustrate my first point, consider for example the proposed goal of 2.5 million visitors and the US $ 2 billion revenue by 2016. The President, perhaps frustrated at the lack of progress and the inconstancies he saw in enunciating a proper tourism strategy, set these as goals for the bureaucrats to follow! The bureaucrats did the math is based on these arrival numbers; we need to expand room capacity by 13,000 rooms to accommodate the influx of tourists. The how has not been given due consideration nor have we examined the desirability of having 2.5 million visiting our country.
However the minister for tourism himself does not seem to think this a realistic goal. I haven’t seen these numbers in the SLTDA website either. Industry experts too are unconvinced; Srilal Mithapala estimates that these 13,000 rooms must come on stream to augment the current 22,000 room capacity in the next six years. An Indian research company puts this number much higher at 40,000 rooms.
Contrast this with the well articulated goal set by King Parakarama Bahu- who said “Let not a single drop of water flow out to sea without being of benefit to mankind.” He did not speak of specifics, not the acreage of water to be retained, or the land that needed to be cultivated. I am sure his ministers figured out what was needed to be done, where and how resulting in an amazing network of irrigation systems. Therefore Strategy must be derived from a rallying call that can be translated into actionable time bound plans.
Unless we acknowledge the elephant in the room, we are not going to make much progress. Unless we have agreement on a rallying call, the industry will be divided on what needs to be strategy. The case in point is that we are yet to articulate what is it that visitors to Sri Lanka can expect to experience compared to other countries that compete with us.
My second point, at the implementation level the danger of not having a rallying call is that we might runaway picking up bits and pieces of the so called strategy and deplete resources that could be put to better use. The call to open up capacity can lead to pinning down hard to find investment dollars in inappropriate fixed assets; consider the scenario where we have invested in the extra capacity and cannot sustain the flow of traffic or we have capacity in the wrong destinations? The battle to fill empty rooms would lead to discounted pricing and overall drop in quality. Tour operators would gleefully set one hotelier against the other ensuring Sri Lanka remains a cheap destination!
Ultimately we want to maximise the revenue per tourist visiting Sri Lanka. If we are to achieve this objective, we must remain nimble and flexible evolving with the ebb and flow of tourism trends, not only managing the tourism product lifecycle, but the end to end customer experience.
The lack of a rallying call also negates efforts to woo the visitors we want; the discerning high spenders. We must move away from defining tourism in terms of arrivals, source countries and geographies. If not we would be blindsided, for example, into thinking that all Indians are a homogenous group who have similar needs and would want to woo them all.
If you consider the current trends, gone are the hippie-hiker days where tourists would absent themselves from work for longer stints. Now they seem to take shorter more intense experiential vacations. Clearly, Generation Y, the smart-phone wielding high spender is the one eluding us. We continue to attract the low spending, older tourist.
If we are to attract the Generation Y’s, our tourism product must give due consideration to the core product attributes looked for by these groups. Recent research has shown that dining out, post-dining entertainment and shopping are experiences rated high among the expectations of the modern traveller. Other than in Colombo, other cities offer little or nothing by way of these core attributes.
Human resource capacity building is another critical bottleneck that has been debated often; we need to be mindful of international norms of service; we cannot let visitor to service provider ratios deteriorate.
Of course the physical infrastructure would need to keep pace and some of this needs to be tourism specific. I am not sure if we have given adequate thought to this aspect.
There are other implications of the impact of tourism on our culture and our way of life, particularly as the ratio of visitors to the local population increases and the rub off effect tourism has on residents. Hikkaduwa is a case in point. There are other questions that need to be answered; how many visitors are too many? How do we manage sensitive religious and historical sites such as the Sri Dalada Maligawa and Sigiriya with the influx of large numbers of tourists? What is the sustainable level for each of these sites?
We seem to disagree on developing the marketing framework as well. Should we develop a country brand or a destination brand? For example, is Kalpitya the destination and Sri Lanka the country brand? Or is Sri Lanka the destination and Kalpitya a sub set of the country brand, one of the many small miracles? Or are we using these terms interchangeably? How do we integrate our other export products such as Sri Lankan Apparel and Ceylon Tea into an overall tourism strategy?
Do we agree on who else competes with us? Is the competition from Asia and if from Asia who are the top two or three countries from whom we can lure traffic? Obviously there are many unanswered questions that need serious consideration.
There is no consistency in the answers; neither from the political leadership nor from those entrusted to implement tourism strategy. What one must remember is that unlike other countries, Sri Lanka has a unique opportunity. Our country is yet to be discovered, according to the New York Times, a country untouched by commercialisation. The opportunity to chart a sustainable and long term plan lies therein.
The challenge therefore stems from lack of visibility and granularity of what the future vision of tourism holds for us, and how we want to move forward. By attempting to accommodate various interest groups, we will meander and squander a golden opportunity to create a unique product.
(The writer is a Marketing Strategist and counts over 30 years of experience in the private sector and has played significant roles in senior management positions across a number of industry verticals. He works in a leadership role in a public quoted company. He can be reached via [email protected].)