Shaping Sri Lanka’s future tourism trajectory

Wednesday, 29 May 2024 01:34 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority former Director-General and industry expert Dr. Malraj Kiriella 

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority former Director-General and industry expert Dr. Malraj Kiriella highlighted the crucial role of strategic planning, innovation and sustainability in shaping the future of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. 

Speaking at the 20th round table discussion organised by the Gamani Corea Foundation at the BMICH, Dr. Kiriella presented an issues paper on the ‘Tourism Sector’, highlighting key strategies for the industry’s growth and development.

Tourism in Sri Lanka

He said the milestones achieved in the early days after the country started its planned tourism in 1966 showcase the rich history and solid foundation of Sri Lanka’s tourism. However, the progress witnessed in the early days was hampered due to both man-made and natural disasters. 

Dr. Kiriella highlighted a study on lost opportunities by forecasting the trend witnessed between 1966 and 1982 to now. If this trend had continued, he said that the country would have received 8.2 million tourist arrivals, generating $ 12.1 billion in revenue, and creating 1.4 million employment opportunities by now without other initiatives. 

“These facts highlight that the total revenue would have been higher than the total export earnings in 2018, with tourism potentially surpassing foreign remittances and the textile and garment industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings,” he pointed out. 

Consistent policies, digital innovation and branding

Drawing from his extensive experience of over 18 years in a State tourism office, Dr. Kiriella cited the challenges posed by varying policies due to changes in administration and officials.

Thus, he underscored the need for a consistent policy framework to provide stability and direction for strategic initiatives. 

“Structural reforms are essential to strengthen strategy and governance, focusing on diverse tourist profiles, sustainability, connectivity and supply chains,” he said. 

Dr. Kiriella also mentioned the Government’s initiatives to introduce a 10-year National Tourism Policy, further underscoring the importance of long-term planning and strategic vision in shaping the industry’s trajectory.

He also said the prevalence of unregistered tourism establishments is estimated more than figures of the registered establishment rooms. “This lack of formal registration hampers ability to make informed policy decisions, ensure quality control, and effectively collect taxes,” he added.

In addition, he noted that the lack of a Tourism Satellite Accounting System and documentation on direct GDP and employment from tourism, underscores the urgent need for improved methods to estimate its economic impact.

Inadequate legal systems leave consumers vulnerable, with concerns of price and product deception tarnishing their experiences. Thus, it urgently needs legislation and robust enforcement mechanisms to safeguard tourists’ interests. 

Dr. Kiriella also said the tourism sector faces skill shortages and low women’s participation, hindering its growth. Women’s involvement is below 10%, far below the global of 54% and the Asia-Pacific average of 53%. “Cultural barriers impede their participation, requiring intervention,” he added.

Embracing digital technology was also identified as a key driver for enhancing visitor experiences and facilitating the transition to socially distant tourism, thereby driving sector growth and ensuring resilience.

Highlighting the significance of a comprehensive branding strategy, Dr. Kiriella asserted the need to boost trust, awareness and connection with travellers. 

He discussed the evolution of Sri Lanka’s branding over the years, citing taglines such as ‘Sri Lanka, a land like no other’, ‘Refreshingly Sri Lanka’, ‘Wonder of Asia’, ‘So Sri Lanka’ and the current tagline of ‘You will come back for more’. 

“It is important to have consistency in branding to cultivate loyalty among travellers and maintain a strong market presence. Unlike Sri Lanka which changed its tagline multiple times within a span of 10 years, regional markets such as Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives and India had maintained its branding quite strong for a long time thereby making it more relevant to the overall visitor experience,” he pointed out.

Government initiatives and collaboration

 Dr. Kiriella also stressed the need for Government initiatives to prioritise tourism, advocating for a realistic yet ambitious approach with achievable goals. 

He elaborated the significance of continuous innovation, collaboration and the formalisation of informal businesses in building the resilience of the tourism sector. By embracing digital technology and fostering collaboration, the industry can enhance competitiveness and sustainability.

In addressing sustainable tourism challenges, Dr. Kiriella underscored the importance of establishing key metrics such as carrying capacity and tourism return on investment (RoI). “These metrics are essential for assessing the impact and sustainability of tourism activities. We also need to engage in comprehensive research to understand market potential and multiplier effects, facilitating the development of robust frameworks for sustainable tourism growth,” he pointed out.

He highlighted the potential for tourism to play a vital role in stabilising the economy and generating crucial foreign exchange and revenue, particularly amidst Sri Lanka’s economic crisis.

Addressing the challenges faced by the tourism industry, particularly in light of the COVID pandemic and economic crisis, Dr. Kiriella stressed the need for continuous innovation, collaboration and formalisation of informal businesses. 

“It is imperative to set realistic goals and prioritise tourism to harness its potential for job creation, revenue generation and multifaceted impact on the economy. From blue-chip corporations to local beach vendors, tourism serves as a powerful economic engine, generating foreign exchange, employment opportunities, revenue to the State, encourage rural development, empowering entrepreneurs and enriching socio-cultural aspects. As an industry renowned for its multiplier effect, tourism plays a critical role in driving economic growth, particularly in an island nation like Sri Lanka,” he said. 

Global Tourism Landscape

Shedding light on the global tourism industry, he highlighted the substantial growth of the tourism sector till 2019, with an average annual increase of 4%, outpacing many other industries worldwide. “In 2019, the industry witnessed around 1.5 billion tourist arrivals globally, contributing a staggering $ 9.3 trillion to the global economy. Tourism also played a crucial role in job creation, accounting for 330 million jobs worldwide, or 1 in 10 jobs globally. However, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a severe blow to the industry from 2019 onwards, with recovery efforts beginning to gain traction only after 2021,” he explained.

According to projections by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), international tourism is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. In 2023, the Asia-Pacific region had already reached 65% of pre-pandemic levels, with South Asia achieving 87%. 

He said it was essential to acknowledge the inherent vulnerability of tourism to both man-made and natural disasters given its intimate association with human experiences and exploration. “By comprehending these dynamics, we can harness the true potential of tourism while safeguarding against potential risks and challenges,” he added.

Sri Lanka’s tourism challenges, recovery and future

In terms of tourism in Sri Lanka, Dr. Kiriella said events such as the civil war spanning nearly three decades, the devastating tsunami in December 2004, the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in April 2019, COVID pandemic in 2020-2021 and the subsequent political and economic crisis in 2022 hindered the sector’s growth significantly with no other country having to undergo multiple major crises. 

He also said issues such as international travel advisories, further compounded the challenges.

“Despite these hurdles, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry began to regain momentum from late 2021, reaching its peak in March 2022. However, various factors, including social tensions, fuel shortages for domestic travel, power outages and negative publicity, hampered its progress. Nonetheless, the industry showed signs of recovery in 2023, with slight growth, followed by significant improvement in the first quarter of 2024, achieving over 100% growth compared to 2023 — though it remains below the benchmark performance set in 2018, the best year for tourism in Sri Lanka, which attracted 2.3 million visitors and generated $ 4.5 billion in revenue,” he said. 

Despite the setbacks caused by various crises, Dr. Kiriella expressed optimism about the industry’s recovery. “Sri Lanka is known for its resilience. Whether it is natural or man-made disasters, we have overcome the challenges with many folds of strength. All we need now is a unified approach, innovation and long-term strategic planning to drive Sri Lanka’s tourism industry to unprecedented levels of prosperity, while mitigating vulnerabilities and ensuring sustainable growth,” Dr. Kiriella said.