By Cheranka Mendis
The high-flying tourism industry closed the year with a record 855,975 arrivals, marking a rise of 100,000 from the original target for the year.
Statistics revealed by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) yesterday noted that the figure reflects a 30.8% increase from the previous year.
The 95,517 visitors in December also broke the single month record of 90,889 clocked in November, data showed. Based on the current trend, the 2012 arrival figure is likely to surpass the one million mark, even though the Five-Year Strategic Plan launched in 2011 listed the expectation as 950,000.
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr. Nalaka Godahewa told the Daily FT yesterday that the 2011 arrivals were a clear indication that the country was now being viewed as an emerging tourism destination world over.
He noted that the original target of 750,000 for the year was formed based on industry estimates and that the rising figure showed how well the country had been received by international tourists.
The industry should now focus on fine-tuning the products, improving service standards and improving infrastructure within the year.
“Our promotion strategy revolves around word-of-mouth and repeat visitors,” Godahewa said. “We do not have the kind of money to splurge explicitly on marketing like other countries.”
Product development, high quality service and good infrastructure therefore must be in place to satisfy the tourists coming into the country.
Touching on plans for marketing, Godahewa noted that for Sri Lanka Tourism, marketing was not necessarily advertising.
“For us, marketing is about investment in many fields other than in advertising as most believe.”“It is about advertising in product development, in bringing down foreign journalists, trade fairs, website development, building contacts with tour operators, etc.,” he said.
“The country does not have huge sums to go ahead and flaunt itself through marketing campaigns; such marketing is done by countries that have a strong tourism market. What we do is focus on what can bring in direct results – word-of-mouth and tourist satisfaction.”
He attributed the positivism highlighted in publications such as National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveller to the foreign journalist campaign conducted last year. Some 163 journalists were said to have been flown down to Sri Lanka for the programme. In 2012, Sri Lanka Tourism hopes to bring in an additional 200 journalists with the intention of spreading the word further.
In 2011, the key market contributing to the rising arrivals was India, which brought in 171,374 tourists to the country. India was followed by the UK with 106,082 tourists and 55,882 from Germany.
Sri Lanka Tourism’s thought process identified five key emerging markets in the Strategic Plan, he said. In India, the fast growing market and high-end tourists should be focused on, while China, which is still a small market for the country (16,308 arrivals in 2011), has the potential to be one of the top five contributors in the near future.
With a conscious effort, the Middle East high end market could be attracted along with Russia. Japan, the last of the five, should be focused on as the ties between the countries grow stronger and the links between Sri Lanka and the Japanese Association of Travel Agents (JATA) is strengthened.
Godahewa added that the online visa system, which came in for heated debate last year, is running smoothly despite a few major hiccups in the first few days. Six days since the initiation, 18,300 arrivals have been recorded, of which 3,700 utilised the online visa facility.
“Now, if a traveller comes with an online visa, it only takes half a minute to get clearance. We timed it yesterday.”
For those who come without the online visa certificate and look for on-arrival visa, four booths have been established at the airport.
The Chairman noted that he, the Immigration Controller, BOC Chairman and Airport Authority Chairman did a round yesterday and took steps to identify and solve the problems then and there. BOC will soon open up a branch in the vicinity of the arrival counters so that money exchange will not be an issue for those who travel.
The Sri Lanka Tourism website, which was a key focus in 2011, has been revamped and the number of hits received is growing daily, while the Tourism Facebook page receives over three million hits daily, he said.
In 2012, Sri Lanka Tourism will work on language translation on the website and will even open separate web pages for China and Russia. The process in this regard has already started.