Sri Lanka tourism industry on right path

The Deputy Minister of Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane recently said that Sri Lanka targets 950,000 tourists in 2012. And our target for 2016 is an ambitious 2.5 million tourists.

It is positive thinking and good vision. But the Minister has not explained how we could reach this target without a proper marketing strategy and aggressive promotions. One should remember that tourists would not simply fly to this country and the tour operators will go the extra mile to recommend Sri Lanka as a destinations without much needed awareness. There are other countries in the region which are our competitors and they have launched vigorous campaigns to lure holyday makers to their respective lands, with considerable budgets for promotions which we lack.

Though we boast of our natural resources we possess and bestowed with pristine beauty, Sri Lanka is not a rich country where we could afford to invest quite a large sum of money to promote tourism. But we have not made use of the opportunities which have come our way to boost our country as a tourist destination in the region.

We need excellent tourism Ambassadors who have the capacity to promote the country overseas. Although most of our diplomatic missions have failed in this respect. Sri Lanka has had men and women living in those countries that have acted as tourism ambassadors voluntarily and promoted the country.

Many in the country’s tourism industry have welcomed the Government’s decision last year to do away with Public Relations Agencies who were paid heavily to boost the country as a tourist destination, but miserably failed. However, most of the Diplomatic Missions who were assigned with the task have also failed.

In this backdrop, the need to appoint voluntary Ambassadors to promote the country as a destination becomes quintessential.

Our tourism product has not been given a tagline nor branding by the authorities, though much has been talked about it. The Treasury Secretary P.B.Jayasundara boldly said in his address at the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka Annual General Meeting, that “Sri Lanka is the only virgin on the beach” in response to remark made earlier by former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism, Renton De Alwis that “Sri Lanka is not the only girl on the beach.”

The Country’s tourism authorities must ponder whether mere rhetoric of Treasury Secretary would do justice and help us woo tourists to the country.

According to leading tour operators and travel agents whom this writer spoke to at the recent World Travel Mart (WTM) held in London “Sri Lanka must not forget that it is competing with a number of other countries in the region which have already established themselves as top tourist destinations. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Vietnam and its neighbour India are a few of them”.

India with a massive promotional budget have invested heavily in London promoting the country as a tourist destination in South Asia with a variety of products to choose from to the discerning traveller.

A joint project by Sri Lankan Airlines, Aitken Spence Hotels and Sri Lanka Tourism to promote our tourism product using 60 London taxis was welcomed by those in the industry.

Sri Lanka didn’t grasp the opportunities at the WTM without any cost, to project the country as a tourist destination. The absence Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr Nalaka Godahewa was conspicuous. It was like the hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The Economic Development Ministry had thought it fit not to provide an allocation for SLT Chairman to travel to London to participate at this important annual exhibition.

Other countries had their top icons, leading tourism personalities present in their respective stalls and the governments and tourism authorities in those countries had thought it was worth sending these personalities to participate at the top tourism fair in the UK.

A lesson we could learn from Trinidad and Tobago was that great cricketing icons such as Brian Lara, Sir Garfield Sobers and Alvin Kallicharan present at their stall all day and the magic worked. Hundreds of people were drawn into their stall just to get a glimpse of the cricketing greats of the Caribbean and according to a spokeswoman for Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Board; they were able to convince some of the visitors who came to meet the cricketing greats to their stall to spend their next holiday in the Caribbean island.

That is the right kind of marketing one should adopt and always massive campaigns where millions of dollars are not needed are is not the only way to boost a country’s image.

We have the Arjunas, Sanaths, Susanthikas and lot more who have done the country proud in different sports. but the authorities wouldn’t have thought of them or thought otherwise.

The whole responsibility where Sri Lanka was concerned was left on the shoulders of Sanjika Perera, Sri Lanka Tourism’s Director in London. Perera handled the duties thrust upon him with great aplomb.

Many who visited the Sri Lanka pavilion was of the opinion that it was more eye catching and spacious than the previous year.

In the recent past men in the calibre of Former Chairman SLT Renton De Alwis, Managing Director Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Dilip Mudadeniya, Deputy Minister Faizer Musthapha were able to create an impression about the country as a destination in the minds of tour operators and visitors to these fairs and these gentlemen were not just passengers. They were able to promote the image of Sri Lanka as a destination at time when the country was saddled with a civil war and the tour operators dissuaded holiday makers from visiting here citing the risk involved.

One wonders how authorities decided not to provide an allocation for Dr Godahewa to participate at the WTM, but had money to provide a joy ride to St Kitts for some who didn’t matter at all where the Commonwealth Games bid was concerned, including some women who were simply live cargo on board a chartered Sri Lankan Airlines flight to the Caribbean. What they did at St Kitts is anybody’s guess, well informed sources said.

They were mere passengers where the Commonwealth Games bid was concerned and only served the interests of some who were on the entourage.

All citizens in this country salute President Rajapaksa for his political vision, strategies adopted by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the military capabilities and leadership provided by the security forces chiefs and sacrifices made by all security forces personnel to rid this country of the scourge of terrorism make it a safe and a secure place for tourists to visit again.

But the big wigs in tourism should make hay while the sun shines before it is too late as other countries in the region will not simply wait.

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