By Gaya Travel on February 13, 2018
Gaya Travel Magazine recently interviewed Mr. P.M. Withana, the Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotional Bureau and the Chairman of Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority to learn more about the state of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.
The interview kickstarted on how the Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is currently doing. “Right after the 30-year civil war ended, tourism in Sri Lanka is back on track by immediately chalking up 30% tourist arrivals – Sri Lanka has bounced back from its setbacks and harmony within the country has been restored,” beams Mr. Withana.
Tourism is Sri Lanka’s third highest exchange earner for the country, after apparels and remittances from Sri Lankan foreign workers. “We want more people to travel to Sri Lanka. Tourism for Sri Lanka is interconnected because it has large spillover effect onto the Sri Lankan economy – when travellers spend and consume products and services in Sri Lanka, they help to boost local economy,” he says.
“Sri Lanka offers nature and wildlife, heritage, culture, tea plantations, beaches and food. It is a compact country that is around 65,000 square kilometres, so travellers can experience many things, from rainforests to highlands, then down to the northeastern part that has dry area and proceed to the coast for beaches – all that can be experienced in one trip. That is how mostly travellers who stay longer such as the Europeans, enjoy Sri Lanka,” Mr. Withana adds.
Mr. Withana shares further that the rate of tourist arrivals growth has been increasing on the average of 18% over the last four years, therefore Sri Lanka is confident that the number of tourist arrivals will keep on rising. “Nowhere else in the world registers such high growth that bests the world tourism average growth of 4%. In 2015, Sri Lanka received 1.8 million tourist arrivals, while 2016 saw the country receiving more than two million tourist arrivals. Based on this, Sri Lanka is confident that tourist arrivals will increase over the next few years,” he expounds.
Sri Lanka is currently enjoying the largest tourist arrivals from India being the neighbour. There are 133 flights a week connecting Colombo to India’s major cities to serve the pilgrimage, business and leisure markets. The arrivals from China come in second largest, leveraging on the fact that all Chinese airlines fly into Sri Lanka while Sri Lankan Airways flies directly from Colombo to four Chinese cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Being the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airways concentrates on these two markets because of the people’s large propensity to travel. As with the rest of the world, Sri Lanka strongly targets travellers from mainland China due to its 130 million-strong outbound market.
“The numbers are there. In a few years, I suspect the tourist arrivals from mainland China will surpass tourist arrivals from India in a few years,” foresees Mr. Withana. The combination of both India and China itself represents 32% of the total tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka, making it a third of Sri Lanka’s tourism business.
Sri Lanka attempts to reinvigorate tourist arrivals from the Middle East, a region that is connected to Sri Lanka via 100 flights per week but now affected by the global economy. Fortunately, the slowdown from that market has been offset by the growth of tourist arrivals from India and China.
The next largest group of markets is from Europe in the likes of United Kingdom, France and Germany, representing 25% of the total tourist arrivals and considered mainstay. “We still keep the traditional markets because they are the best. The reason: they stay the longest in the country, around 10 to 11 days compared to travellers from the Asian markets, thus adding more revenue to the country. These travellers also do not stay in just one place – they travel throughout the island since it is now safe and secure. Of course, there are still a few cases that happen here and there, but they are very rare and far in between,” he explains. After having said that, Mr. Withana remains confident that the Indian and Chinese markets will grow, especially the latter, which will have more impact on Sri Lanka’s tourism.
When talking about the markets from South East Asia, Sri Lanka primarily targets Buddhists from that region because it is predominantly Buddhist, hence it is only natural to encourage Buddhists from elsewhere to come to Sri Lanka and follow Buddha’s trails; Lord Buddha himself actually walked on Sri Lankan soil three times in his life. Sri Lanka is able to tap on the potential Buddhist markets from Thailand, Indochina, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and even Indonesia. There are also large Buddhist communities to be found in Japan, China, and Korea. All airlines from the said markets fly to Colombo, so there is no issue in terms of flight connectivity. South East Asian Buddhists are also invited to attend the annual United Nations-recognised Wesak Day every May, which celebrates the birth of Buddha. As a matter of fact, in conjunction with the upcoming Wesak Festival week in May 2017, the government of Sri Lanka is inviting leaders from major Buddhist nations to attend a summit that time.
“We are also attracting Hindus via the Ramayana trail, besides other market segments like Muslim travellers by offering them the Sri Lankan Malay community and halal experiences. Relating to that, Sri Lanka is looking into halal seriously – alongside friendlier visa policies – because we want to encourage Muslim pilgrims from South East Asia heading to Mecca to stop over in Sri Lanka for an enriching three days filled with halal cuisine, mosques, Sri Lankan Malay village and the Elephant Orphanage. This is also to leverage on Sri Lanka’s geographical location since it is half way between the Middle East and South East Asia,” Mr. Withana reveals.
In 2016, Sri Lanka received around 25,000 Malaysian tourist arrivals (the highest ever recorded), registering an increase of 10% to 12% from the previous years. With the population of approximately 30 million, Malaysia is an important market for Sri Lanka due to its multicultural makeup. Kuala Lumpur itself is only three hours and a half away from Colombo by flight. Both countries are connected by Sri Lankan Airways, Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Malindo Air, all totalling 31 flights a week.
Investors are able to access to Sri Lanka due to flight connectivity and Colombo’s hub position. With the increase of tourist arrivals, the Sri Lankan tourism industry now focusses on the issue of providing enough accommodation offerings to meet demand, therefore investments are pouring in to build more hotels and resorts such as Shangri-La, Hyatt, Moevenpick and Minor Group, including investments into other tourism sectors of Sri Lanka.
In Colombo, a 240-hectare of reclaimed land project called Harbour City is well under way, which comes with a marina and invested by Singaporeans and mainland Chinese, attesting to their confidence towards Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. The project is also in line with Sri Lanka’s intention to become a cruise and yacht hub. At the same time, Malaysians invest in stratified properties in Colombo. Sri Lanka also lures investors to develop golf courses in Sri Lanka. Due to the large influx of international travellers, restaurants in Sri Lanka are evolving and becoming international and diverse.
Sri Lanka plans to further develop the East Coast to boost tourism in that region, involving stretches of coastline covering Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Arugam Bay. The government also intends to further develop ecotourism hotspots throughout Sri Lanka such as Monaragala, the Kalpitiya islands, Yalle wildlife sanctuary and Bentota by partnering with the private sector. “Government is keen to invest in tourism in the form of land and hard assets, and then inviting international investors to come in help to manage these assets and increase their value, besides bringing in income for themselves and the nation,” notes Mr. Withana.
One challenge that Sri Lanka faces is the issue of carrying capacity. Sri Lanka emphasises on sustainability and the need to manage the capacities of its places of worship, heritage and natural sites because there is only so many travellers that they can hold at any given time. One example on how to manage capacity is to have the natural sites in Sri Lanka close for up to three months to allow flora and fauna to regenerate and flourish.
The next challenge relates to business: the increasing number of hotels that are coming up requires increasing number of local skilled workforce to serve them, therefore the Sri Lankan government addresses this shortfall through education and training. Another one concern that is currently tackled by the Sri Lankan government is to cut red tape when it comes to investments and facilitating investors.
When asked for his view on how he sees Sri Lanka’s tourism industry in the next few years, Mr. Withana turns sprightly. “According to the trends, tourism globally is growing. Out of 11 persons being employed in a population, one of them is employed by the tourism industry. Tourism also contributes 10% of the GDP. We can see more large cruise ships being built like never before, coinciding with the increasing number of aging people in the world who prefer to spend time travelling on these ships.
“Of course, tourism is very sensitive and very much dependent on people – a people business. Though untoward incidences like natural disasters and terrorist threats do happen, travel and tourism business would not stop but instead continue and improve. The current Sri Lankan government gives more power to the people through strong representation in parliament, thus emphasises on maintaining peace, reconciliation and harmony. Tourism is identified as one of the key drivers to propel Sri Lanka into a prosperous future for all its citizens. On these accounts, Sri Lankan tourism industry will surely grow,” ends Mr. Withana on a high note.