If Sri Lanka is deleted, who will miss us?

Tuesday, 2 February 2021 00:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When President Trump refused to declare a lockdown, many of us were questioning his decision. We see that today in Sri Lanka, we are practicing a similar doctrine by opening up the country for tourism when most countries around the world are in lockdown.

The latest data reveals that there are over 55,000+ confirmed COVID cases with 280 plus fatalities at a 0.48% mortality rate. The 0.48% mortality rate means that we can reliably forecast 100 deaths in the next month or so in Sri Lanka. It’s a reality we find it hard to accept though.

Tourism opened

In this backdrop, the decision by the Sri Lankan Government to open the doors for visitors amidst the uproar of the medical community has made this decision to have a mixed aura. The reason for the decision is very clear with the dollar touching Rs. 200 and Sri Lanka challenged to keep the economy kicking. We need the dollars, in simple words. 

Whilst it is a calculated risk, the reality is that unless we can attract two million visitors into the country, the venture is not viable. I guess the need for a global campaign is very strong given the quarantine guidelines and procedures that are in play where three PCR tests have to be done for a two-week stay. 

Media reported that even travellers from a discerning country like Ukraine have said Sri Lanka will not be a port of call in the future. Whilst some may take this as a challenge, to my mind this will bring out the real skill of Sri Lankan marketers in the leisure sector. It will also push the country to unleash the much wanted global marketing campaign.

V-shaped recovery – 2nd wave

The latest data from Nielsen reveals that the Sri Lanka FMCG sector has declined by 17% as a cumulative end September. But the good news is that a V-shaped recovery has happened as at end September. However, the reality is that it was in the third week that the second wave that hit Sri Lanka took the country to the wire with COVID numbers catapulting to the reality of today. 

The latest estimates are that almost 40,000 have become victim to COVID and parts of the country have been moving in and out of lockdown, affecting the distribution of all companies. Latest data reveals that Sri Lanka will register -5.3% GDP growth in 2020. Latest data reveals January is heading for a tough month end and indications are that 2021 will be challenging especially from a cost side of the business. The reason being the exchange rate hit on the dollar. Speculation is that the dollar will hit 240 by yearend. 

Global expert Simon Anholt addressing Sri Lanka at the APIIT CEO Forum



Good country – SL deleted?

In this backdrop, Nation Brand Building guru Simon Anholt addressed Sri Lanka last week with an eminent panel discussing the issues related to the new concept ‘Good Country’. The panel included the BOI Chairman, EDB Chairman, tourism experts and President of the Professional Bankers Association. 

In simple words a good country was defined by Simon Anholt as a country that successfully harmonises its domestic and international responsibilities so that the country remains relevant globally. In other words, if someone were to delete Sri Lanka from the face of the world, who will miss the country? 

It’s a simple idea but has a very powerful meaning which takes us to the concept of either being ‘product oriented’ or ‘market driven’. If we want the world to miss us if deleted, then we must be relevant, was the point stated by the guru on this area, Simon Anholt.

Any government that attempts to create the perception of contributing to the international community without actually doing so won’t get very far, he advocates. According to Anholt, “The worsening of the pandemic and the increasingly disjointed and dysfunctional behaviour of many governments has made one bad thing worse and one good thing better.”

Good thing?

According to Anholt, the good thing is that the whole of humanity has been made acutely and continuously conscious of being part of a global community for many months. 

The consciousness of seven billion other human beings, suffering and striving and hoping and dying, fighting off the predominantly evil influence of politicians and the media, every hour of every day, in every corner of the planet, has worked wonders for our sense of connectedness. We feel more like a single species inhabiting a single planet than I can ever remember feeling before. 

Sri Lanka must see how to remain relevant in this changing climate. Harping on the 60 million cups of Ceylon Tea that the world drinks daily or the made in Sri Lanka apparel which is ethically manufactured will not be the equation of a Good Country but how a country behaves on the world stage to engage the world is what counts.

New positioning – SL Tourism way out?

The global tourism industry is worth $ 5.3 trillion growing at 8% for the last seven years with almost 350 million jobs contributing to 10.4% of GDP. Sri Lanka Tourism contributed to around $ 4 billion with around 300,000 people directly involved in the business before the pandemic. This industry has just been wiped out in the last year and some have repurposed, whilst some have just gone out of business. 

Whilst this can have disastrous consequences it has also given the world a chance to recalibrate. In marketing we call this a clean slate and Sri Lanka will never get this opportunity make a new mark on the global stage with a strong global marketing campaign. This will be Sri Lanka’s fifth chance.

First chance: 2009

If I track back, in 2009 we got the first chance after the cessation of hostilities with the LTTE. A fully-fledged advertising tender was rolled out, with top professionals in the technical committee.  

Second chance: 2015

Then came the second chance in 2015, when the Yahapalana Government came in, where we all believed that the hierarchy was professional in nature, and people like us decided to take responsibility to lead such key institutions like tourism.

The top seven global advertising agencies were shortlisted to submit proposals with a clear brief, which was done in just three months, with the team working past midnight, given the urgency of the campaign. A month before proposals were submitted, the Board was dissolved in October 2015, whilst the tender was cancelled two days before the submission date of the proposals. All seven ad agencies were up in arms. The Minister had other ideas outside the tender process, sadly.

Third chance –Post April attack 

Post the 21 April Easter attacks, Sri Lanka Tourism got the third chance, and that too was squandered when the AG’s Department did not approve the proposal submitted by a PR agency to drive a global marketing initiative due to the irregularities identified.

Fourth chance – Post Presidential Election

The industry has got the fourth chance post with the new President taking office. This gave birth to a golden opportunity given that the tourism sector was classified as an export industry. It was a brilliant move given the tax breaks since the industry will be entitled to will be similar to the companies attached to the EDB. But the industry folded when COVID-19 hit the world and Sri Lanka tourism once again got affected. It was very unfortunate, is my take. 

 Fifth chance - Go back to basics 

We have now got a fifth chance with the launch of tourism on 21 January.  I guess we need to just go back to practicing the basics. Just like my guru the late Prof. Uditha Liyanage once said, “Be brilliant in the basics.” 

This is exactly what Maldives is doing in driving the tourism sector. Segment, target, position. Thereafter, derive the marketing objectives and key actions; that must be scaled down to a powerful creative; that then can be hosted on traditional media and emerging digital media platforms. 

Sri Lanka has got the fifth chance. Will we blow this opportunity too? Or can we drive a strategy so that if deleted we will be missed?

(Dr. Athukorala in an alumnus of Harvard Executive Education and accounts for over 20 years’ brand marketing experience in top multinationals, including the UN.)


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