Marketing an emerging tourism destination in Asia

Wednesday, 2 November 2011 02:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A country perspective of innovation and diversification

Distinguished invitees, presenters, organising committee members, officials, representatives of the media, ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a privilege for me to present at this important global conference, Sri Lanka’s perspective of innovation and diversification in marketing tourism.

Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr. Nalaka Godahewa addressing

the fifth UNWTO/PATA forum

Given that the objective of the conference is to share best practices and disseminate knowledge on latest developments in tourism have structured this presentation to address the following;

  • Global tourism outlook
  • Major tourism trends
  • Opportunities to innovate and diversify
  • Introduction to Sri Lanka tourism
  • The end of the war and the focus on economic development
  • The formulation of a five-year tourism development strategy
  • Diversification of the tourism product
  • The eight products and the 12 monthly themes
  • Positioning strategy
  • Innovations to exploit global trends
  • Aligning stakeholders towards a common objective

As you are already aware, global tourism arrivals grew by 6% in 2010 recovering from a 5% slump in 2009. In 2010 we saw 940 million tourist arrivals globally, with global tourism revenue reaching an all time record of US$ 919 billion.

At the beginning of the year UNWTO has predicted a further growth of about 4-5% in 2011 as global tourism industry is recovering fast. UNWTO projections for 2011 were as follows (see table 1).

Tourism as you can see in the above figures is growing quite fast in Asia. China and Malaysia, the number one and two tourist destinations in Asia are now amongst the 10 most popular tourist destinations in the world (see table 2).

It is in this background we are discussing as to how an emerging tourism destination such as Sri Lanka could be effectively marketed. Surrounded by so many ambitious neighbours with large marketing budgets focusing on tourism as a key economic driver in their respective countries this is indeed a challenging task for us.

To be successful in marketing one must first understand the market, the behaviours and expectations of the target customers and the industry trends. I would like to highlight 10 major global trends in the tourism industry today:

n Regional and short haul travel becoming popular

  • A defensive mindset and tight budgets.
  • Consumers are becoming more demanding
  • Travellers are searching for meaningful experiences.
  • Consumers seeking more green
  • Independent women travelling with friends.
  • Travellers are more activity oriented than destination oriented
  • Web and mobile technologies are emerging as powerful marketing tools
  • Instant access to information through traditional and social media
  • China is dominating growth of both inbound and outbound

When Sri Lanka Tourism developed its five-year tourism development strategy in consultation with the key industry stakeholders this year we gave due considerations to the above facts, particularly in refining our tourism product and the marketing strategies.

As you may be already aware, Sri Lanka is a distinct island located just below the southern tip of India. It has a land mass of 65,610 sq km, surrounded by 1,330 km of coastline.

Geographically, Sri Lanka is well positioned on the sea route connecting the East and the West. This is why historically Sri Lanka was an important trading hub in the ancient world. Trade links with China Egypt, Greece and Rome goes back as far as 1500 BC.

Sri Lanka is believed to be the island fortress of legendary king Ravana in the great Indian epic Ramayana. The Sinhala race, the majority ethnic group in the country, was founded by Vijaya, a North Indian Prince who arrived by ship with 700 supporters. From 1505-1948, the island was under the colonial rule of the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

This beautiful island has inherent advantages of having a highly diversified tourism product which could be pitched against any other well established tourism destination in the world.

It has beaches like Maldives or Mauritius, ancient heritage sites like Egypt or Greece, rain forests like Congo or Amazon, art and culture like India or Thailand, waterfalls like Zambia or Canada, wildlife like Kenya or South Africa, natural beauty like Switzerland or Myanmar, gemstones like Madagascar or Burma, spices like India or Indonesia and festivals like China or Brazil.

With such a comprehensive tourism product, one may wonder why Sri Lanka hasn’t emerged as a top tourism destination in Asia so far. It is due to a very simple reason. For 30 long years the progress of this beautiful country was hindered by an internal conflict orchestrated by one of the most brutal and horrendous terrorist outfits that the world has ever seen, the LTTE.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka and also for the world this 30-year-long armed conflict ended on 18 May 2009 with complete annihilation of LTTE under the enlightened leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka.

During the last three years of post conflict period, the resettlement and national reconciliation programmes have made significant progress, setting an example to the rest of the world.

The Government is now totally focused on the economy. In 2010 the country recorded 8% GDP growth. In the first half of 2011 we have maintained the same growth rate. Per capita income is expected to grow from the current $ 2,400 to $ 4,000 by 2016. A number of industries have been identified by the Government as key economic drivers. Amongst these, the tourism industry also plays an important role.

The economic development policy of the Government draws attention to all segments of society. The development according to the vision of President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be confined to a few sectors, few organisations or few individuals.

A larger cross section of the society must benefit from the economic activities supported by the Government. The development task has begun from home by the Government supporting activities that improve the household economies.

Community-based economies are being improved by providing the necessary assistance in terms of training, credit financing, subsidies, etc. Townships are being developed to offer better life standards to society.

The overall investor friendly Government policy framework supports the emerging economy. Infrastructure development and capacity building are the highest priorities of the Government currently.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set a target for the tourism sector to reach 2.5 million tourist arrivals by 2016. In the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ the Government policy framework for the future, he states: “I will introduce an accelerated development programme for the tourism industry. I will launch a programme to fulfil the infrastructure and other requirements in order to attract 2.5 million tourists annually by 2016.”

Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa who is also in charge of tourism has introduced a five-year master plan for tourism development in order to achieve the following key tourism objectives:

  • Positioning Sri Lanka as one of the most-sought-after tourist destinations
  • Promote tourism to reach annual tourist arrivals of 2.5 m target by 2016
  • Increase the annual foreign exchange earnings to US$ 2.75 b by 2016
  • Attract US$ 3 b or more Foreign Direct Investments to the country within the next five years.
  • Increase the room capacity to 45,000 by 2016
  • Reach 500,000 direct and indirect employment within the next five years
  • The tourism development strategy 2011-2016 focuses on five main areas:
  • Creating an environment conducive for tourism
  • Attracting new tourists
  • Ensuring arriving tourists are happy
  • Improve domestic tourism
  • Improve the global perception about the country

Sri Lanka Tourism with the assistance of key industry stakeholders has identified a number of projects and activities under each one of the above and they are being implemented currently.

The Government of Sri Lanka has clearly identifies tourism as a private sector driven industry and has confined its role to planning ,policy making, providing common infrastructure, coordinating capacity building, identification of thrust areas/zones/projects, facilitating efficient project clearance, ensuring transparency and welfare and coordinating country promotions and research.

Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, the Secretary to the Ministry, has been involved in a series of consultative meetings with the industry to identify the key issues faced by them. A number of initiatives have been taken by the Government during the last two years in a positive direction to support the industry.

For example, restoration of a simple tax regime, improved licensing procedures and faster service, setting up of a one-stop-shop for tourism investment approval, expediting city development, revising regulations to align with international standards, extensive use of technology for tourism promotion activities (web marketing, electronic ticketing for key attractions, online visa, call centre facilities, etc.) and development of a five-year strategic plan with industry participation.

The private sector is expected to focus on identifying and investing in new business opportunities, building infrastructure and manpower, training staff and improving service standards, creating value added products, marketing year-round capacity, ensuring corporate social responsibility and ensuring sustainability.

According to the major tourism trends I presented earlier, tourists are today looking for more enriched, meaningful experiences. They demand value for their money. They like to travel short distances and see more things within a limited budget. They look for more activities in a single location. The new positioning strategy of Sri Lanka Tourism takes these global needs into account and tries to capitalise on our inherent strength of being a highly diversified tourism product.

Sri Lanka is an island whose main advantages for tourism are authenticity, compactness and diversity. The unique advantage of Sri Lanka as a tourism destination could be elaborated around these three core strengths.

With 2,600 years of recorded history, everything about Sri Lanka is authentic and there is no necessity to manufacture a story for marketing purposes. Nature has blessed the country, making it an extremely attractive destination for tourism. So authenticity is our first advantage. With only 65,610 sqkm land mass, the entire island of Sri Lanka can be explored within a few days. Even the longest distance across the country can be covered within a few hours and if you are flying it can be done within one hour. Even a busy traveller can see most parts of the country within a short period of time due to this second advantage, which is being compact.

The third and the biggest advantage is the unparalleled diversity of our tourism product. For the convenience of marketing we have summarised all attractions in Sri Lanka into eight categories. The number eight has been selected because there are eight letters in the name Sri Lanka. The eight different product categories that we want to promote are:

  • Beaches: Pristine
  • Sports and adventure: Thrills
  • Heritage sites: Heritage
  • Mind and body wellness: Bliss
  • Scenic beauty of the country: Scenic
  • Wildlife and nature: Wild
  • People and culture: Essence
  • Year-round festivals: Festive

Now just think of any tourism destination in the world where you can find all these in one place. Even if you do, where else can you cover all these within a few days? Sri Lanka is probably the only country which makes it possible. That’s why we can call Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Since many tourists view exploring Sri Lanka as a refreshing experience, we have chosen the tagline ‘Refreshingly Sri Lanka, Wonder of Asia’. If we continue to use this tagline over a period of time we can make it globally known such as ‘Incredible India,’ ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ or ‘Amazing Thailand,’ with much less marketing expenditure.

In order to establish the fact that it is a compact destination, we advice the industry to use the theme ‘the 8 wonderful experiences in 8 wonderful days’. However this will depend on the type of packages that each tour operator wants to promote.

Under each category, we want to focus on about three icons when promoting the destination rather than focusing on too many. For example Sigiriya, Temple of the Tooth Relic and Dambulla cave temple are the most widely-promoted heritage sites. When it comes to wildlife we hope to promote The Elephant Gathering at Minneriya, leopard watching at Yala and blue whale watching at Mirissa as talking points.

When it comes to sports and adventure surfing at Arugam Bay is already well established. Scuba diving and ballooning are two other sports with high potential that we can popularise over time. Similarly for all eight categories we are in the process of finalising what we need to focus on when promoting internationally.

Tourism should be a sustainable industry. There are two aspects that the Government is quite keen to ensure. Firstly the economic benefits of tourism should be shared by a larger cross section of society. Hence supply chain development and value creation becomes key. Secondly, no development can compromise the environment. The Government policy and regulations as well as the nature loving culture of our people will take care of this aspect.

As an emerging tourism destination we are quite keen to innovate on the technological front. We believe that the future of tourism belongs to technology. Over the last two years, since the end of the war, a number of initiatives have been taken in this area. The Sri Lanka tourism website has been completely revamped to make it an informative, user friendly, dynamic and interactive site where one would find more videos and pictures than text. Users can share their experiences and upload pictures and videos to the site. The website is linked to a number of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The industry has been requested to use the Government web portal for marketing their products. We would like the entire tour planning process of the tourist from hotel reservation, airline ticketing, visa approval, tour planning, finding a guide, purchasing tickets for key attractions and even booking a taxi to be facilitated online.

Call centres and online tourist information will obviously be part and parcel of this exercise. We want to get maximum advantage of the fast evolving mobile phone technology for tourism.

Initially there will be some resistance from parties who may feel that technology is cannibalising traditional distribution networks. But our advice to them would be to embrace the change and exploit the opportunities rather than resisting the inevitable. The consumers are getting sophisticated. The world is moving forward. We need to keep up.

Over the next few years Sri Lanka will continue to focus on attracting local and foreign investors for the purpose of enhancing our product range and creating value. A number of investment opportunities which include hotels, golf courses, race courses, water parks, theme parks, marinas, shopping malls, taxi services, entertainment studios, adventure sports facilities, light aircraft services/sea planes, boat manufacturing, boat hiring, convention centres and tourism and educational institutes have been highlighted in the Tourism Development Strategy 2011-2016 published by the Ministry of Economic Development.

Sri Lanka has great potential in tourism. The vision and the strategies for growth are clear. What is required now is to continue the positive momentum and implement the plans with commitment.