Few people who are familiar with Sri Lanka would consider the destination anything less than outstanding. For them it is a mystery why Sri Lanka is not more successful than the tourism numbers indicate. As Bruce Musick, the CEO of Vanguard Hotels claimed, it is “one of the few places on earth that exceeds expectations,” while Peter Henley, President of Onyx, was especially eager to introduce the country to his regular customers, bluntly stating that “everything you can get in Thailand you can get in Sri Lanka with knobs on.” Binod Chaudhary, the Chairman of Cinnovation, duly confirmed Sri Lanka’s attributes, but hinted at one of the most significant obstacles. “Some countries are blessed with nature, but somehow the politics doesn’t support that.”
This is Sri Lanka in a nutshell. A wonderful country which keeps bouncing back from all manner of setbacks, many of them self-inflicted, but which has the potential to delight and amaze even the most jaded of travelers.
Trends within the tourist data in recent years show the numbers of European visitors falling in both 2001, when the Tamil Tigers attacked Colombo’s main airport and destroyed a number of Sri Lankan Airlines planes, and in 2005, in the aftermath of the tsunami. The years from 2007-2009 were marked by a general decline in tourism as the ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers broke and the Sri Lankan government began its merciless push towards finally ending the years of civil war. However, charts depicting tourist arrivals and tourism receipts then show a dramatic surge upwards from 2010 after the government declared victory; average arrivals numbers for the decade prior to 2010 hovered around 500,000 but had doubled by 2012 and passed 1.5 million last year.
Occupancy rates across all categories of accommodation have been strong during this upswing, averaging around 74%, but the problem, especially outside Colombo, has been in sustaining room rates. Hiran Cooray, the Chairman of Jetwing Hotels, attributed this to an over-dependence on tour operators, but suggested that their influence might be on the verge of breaking. He also added, however, that the ever-changing nature of government policies had neither inspired confidence nor attracted sufficient foreign investment.
Bruce was more optimistic, adamant that the country “only has upside.” He argued that Sri Lanka’s location within similar flying times from much of China and Southeast Asia makes it particularly attractive, while its biggest market, India, is even closer. As for the lack of political stability, “if you work in emerging markets you’re used to it.”
Certain issues continue, nevertheless, to hold Sri Lanka back. One is transportation and the other is the promotion of the Sri Lankan brand. Transportation is being addressed, with the completion of the expressways linking Colombo, Galle and Matara on the south coast and Colombo with its airport. It is hoped that the Colombo-Kandy link will open by 2017. On the other hand, domestic air travel remains inconvenient for tourists, despite the existence of what Hiran termed “a half-baked network” of air taxi services and charters.
The bigger problem is the need to orchestrate the effective promotion of Sri Lanka in order to generate wider awareness of what the destination has to offer and to better co-ordinate the relevant agencies to serve tourism. In recent years, politicians have acted prominently in this role instead of marketing professionals, to the detriment of the brand. With the recent election precipitating a change of government it is hoped that the new regime can inject greater urgency in raising Sri Lanka’s profile and developing policies to help it to fully achieve its potential.
One thing is for sure: everyone who has experienced Sri Lanka for themselves will be wishing the country well..