Tourism in Sri Lanka has always been on auto-pilot, the beauty of the country and the hospitality of the people alone have attracted visitors to Sri Lanka over the decades. However, there is great potential that must be utilised. It is time for the industry to move forward. The Chairman comes with years of experience having headed the organisation previously. He is also a professional hotelier who has worked in the industry during challenging times. A tourism strategy and master plan have been developed and is in the process of being implemented. The Chairman requests Sri Lankans to support tourism by protecting the environment, developing human resources and ensuring that all communities benefit from the progress of the sector.
Tourism is one of the main income generators of the country, can you tell us about the master plan for the sector?
Tourism is the key income generator for the Sri Lankan economy. The country has all the facilities required for tourism, which is driven naturally. We can further improve so that the industry benefits the entire country.
Sri Lanka is the best place to visit in the world because we have peace and security. We have hotels around the country and infrastructure development is happening at a rapid scale. Tourism should benefit all the people in the country. It should not be confined to the people or businesses in the hospitality industry, the benefits of tourism have to be felt by the community and trickle down to the grass root level. That is why we are very keen to see that tourists travel around the country.
We want tourists to move from place to place in Sri Lanka. We are developing a concept called beyond beaches, where we want tourists to experience more than the beach. Sri Lanka has the best wildlife, nature, historical and cultural sites. For example, if we look at our hill country, it is beautiful with rolling hills, tea plantations and waterfalls. There is so much that we can offer. Tourism is an industry that we need to look at in a more focused manner so that the entire country benefits.
We hope to encourage the homestay concept because you invest on your home not as a business per se. A small house can be developed further. We are looking at ways to market small properties online in order to support the communities. The people in the area will have a livelihood because they will provide transport, fresh ingredients for the meals and other support services. They will be able to provide a very ‘insider' experience to their guests. This will be a very sustainable venture.
Sustainability is very important for the industry. That is the very reason we promote the entire country to tourists.
Can you tell us about the tourism strategy that is being implemented since your appointment as the Chairman?
There are two main areas in tourism; one is development and the other is promotion. Product development is what we need to focus on. We need people to participate in tourism development activities. As beaches are the main attraction for tourists coming into the country, we have to ensure that our beaches are clean. In order to ensure that, we are in discussion with the various authorities and organisations and we have created ‘beach management teams'. It is their responsibility to create awareness through various progammes. The people, that is the community, the hospitality industry and agencies must take the initiative. At the end of the day we want to have a Blue Flag Beach, where the sea is clean.
We have to educate people who live along the canals on good practices, it is the same with hotels and other industries as well. We are working on having proper drainage systems where the water gets filtered before it falls into the sea. The local governments have to make very serious plans to get involved in this endeavour. This is not easy work.
We are looking at school level educational awareness programmes, to teach children. They are the future of the country for whom we need to protect the environment.
Infrastructure development is very important as well. We have to select the correct area according to the planned property. We cannot go and randomly construct structures. This Government has identified areas for development such as the South, East, Mannar and Kalpitiya, the surrounding islands as well as the North. Then we are looking at the plantation area, the Central highlands. The hill country is a top-end market for visitors from the Middle East.
Wildlife is something unique that we offer in this country. We have to make sure that we protect the environment. Sri Lanka Tourism is working with agencies such as the coast conservation agency, wildlife department, forestry and irrigation. I always believe that we have to protect our wildlife.
These are the areas that we have identified to develop for the future. Tourism is not only about numbers. We want tourists to see what this country has to offer, that is why it is important to identify tourism zones. We have to work with the community and not confront them. It is only if we work together that we can ensure that the sector is developed.
On the promotions side, we are looking at participating in trade fairs, bringing journalists and travel writers to the country. We are also working with airlines so that we can jointly promote the country. We are focusing on consumer marketing and we need to make our presence felt in the countries in which we attend trade fairs. Innovative publicity campaigns such as billboards, underground branding, digital marketing, TV campaigns, content writing for our website and also appointing a PR company to work for us. These activities were delayed previously for various reasons but we have got the approval of the cabinet to move forward with the programmes and once implemented we expect a major impact on tourist arrivals.
Can you elaborate on the role of Sri Lanka Tourism?
Sri Lanka Tourism is responsible for both development and promotion. Tourism in Sri Lanka is a private sector driven industry. We are the facilitator and the regulator. We have to attract foreign investors, look at infrastructure development, training in the hospitality sector, protection and benefits for the community. We are not looking at only foreign tourists but domestic tourists as well.
What markets are we targeting for tourism and why?
The top markets are India, China, UK, Germany, France, Russia and the Middles East. However, there are emerging markets, which are Scandinavia, Australian and New Zealand. We also need to have a greater focus on the US market. We need to focus more on the European market as they stay the longest in Sri Lanka, when compared with Asians.
How are we positioning Sri Lanka in terms of category and rates? Are we targeting the correct segments?
We are not only looking at the numbers, we are looking at the yields as well. We have to focus on niche markets. Golf is one area that we need to look at and we must have a golf circuit in this country. The percentage of the ageing population is increasing. This segment is actually the cruise ship market. I am in discussion with the Ports Authority on howwe can facilitate cruise ships in Colombo, Trincomalee and Hambantota.
Yachts are another area where travellers pay a premium price. They travel to the East, Jaffna, Galle and Hambantota. They travel around the country by sea.
With upmarket tourism, international brands will start to come into Sri Lanka. We need to have a more open sky policy where airlines are given the opportunity to bring passengers to Sri Lanka. In this way we can attract more tourists. Today Sri Lanka is not only connected by road or water, it is connected by air, so we need to look at a very good policy. We may have a national carrier, that is fine but we need to open up. Sri Lanka can be a centre of connectivity.
The high-end market is important. We had a conflict for 30 years, that is an issue we faced in this country and we need to now move forward. The good brands market the country. They have loyal customers who are the top end market with a high spending power. We need to develop the infrastructure in the country. We have road networks, but we need to have more airport facilities to cater to high-end tourists. We have 14 domestic airports in the country, the Government is very keen to work on public-private partnerships to develop these airports. While the government provides the infrastructure the private sector can operate domestic flights to the cities around the country, which will reduce travel time significantly.
We are interested in promoting sports. We are looking at organising an international kite surfing competition as well as activities at a more local level. When we have such events it is not only the participants but also the spectators that come to the country. Then a few other activities that we are focusing on are surfing in Arugam Bay and hot air balloon rides for tourists. We also want to organise a beach volleyball tournament that will be held around the country. These do not cost much but will be a great attraction to the country.
Ayurveda is unique to Sri Lanka, I am working with the Department of Indigenous Medicine to offer services and product to tourists, which can be promoted through the hotels.
The backpacker market is very important. There are more than 27 million backpackers travelling around Asia. These are tourists with a high spending capacity and they will stay in a country for more than a month travelling. Generally they may be university students or young couples who want to explore the world. Ten years later these young people will return with their families because of the good memories and experiences that they have had in the country. They will spend much more. Therefore, we need to develop hostels, train services and bus services to cater to the backpacker market. We need to improve on the small places along the way as these tourists will stay or eat at these places. This is a very important market.
We are also launching an educational programme for Sri Lankans called ‘Adaraneeya Sri Lanka', so that they too know the value of the country and what we have to offer.
What can you tell us about the human resources in the sector?
That is a big problem. We did not plan for the human resources requirement in the sector. The migration of staff for employment to other countries is also an issue where they have absorbed them into the system with better salaries. The hospitality industry is not very lucrative as it is not an eight to five job, weekends and holidays are working days so there must be some kind of motivation for new staff to join and for them to remain in the sector.
Hotels must pay more and attract employees. We have the knowledge and the skill. Hotel School provides the required training. After which they are given placements in the industry to acquire skills. We have vocational training as well. But we still do not have enough people joining the sector. That is a problem. We need to have more vibrant training programmes, and hotels as the employer must provide comprehensive remuneration packages to their staff.
The country is faced with three problems; power, water and human capital. It is the responsibility of the Government to provide power and water, but human capital is the responsibility of the private sector. The Government nor the Hotel School can do this alone. The private sector must take the initiative.
Many are reluctant to join the hospitality sector because of their limited knowledge in English. Therefore we need to give them the confidence by providing the required training. We need skilled people in the industry. It is important to employ staff from the area of the hotel, where the skill and the training are provided. The private sector has a major role to play in finding a solution for the human resources issue. At the end of the day you can have a beautiful building but it is the staff that really matter because they provide the experience.
How can we ensure that a property is suitable for an area?
We must first map out the country on a digital platform. We must develop and indicate the areas that are available. Anyone who is interested can access the digital platform and will know the number of hotels in a location, the space available and whether it is a land near a beach, plantation, wildlife park or heritage area. However, no one should build a hotel without the prior approval of Sri Lanka Tourism.
They must first come with their plan, and then we will look for an appropriate land for them. We will be requiring their business and marketing plan as well as how the community will benefit from their project. There are standards that have been stipulated in the gazette, which have to be adhered to. Based on that we will give a conceptual agreement. Then the plan is forwarded to the respective authority, depending on the location, who needs to give approval. Currently what is happening is that the local government is granting permission for hotels to build and these properties seek TouristBoard approval afterwards. We do not register hotels like that anymore. We have taken a stand. The gazette clearly stipulates that it is mandatory for a hotel to register and classify themselves under the tourist board. That is why we are also looking at creating zones and providing the necessary facilities so that hotels will be properly defined and regulated.
It is also important to encourage small guesthouses and restaurants, which are in the informal sector. They too contribute to the economy. We must improve their standards and provide this sector access to funding. Tourists will receive a more authentic Sri Lankan experience at such places. When these properties improve there will be more people entering the industry in terms of job creation, the supply of fresh produce, transportation and the development of SMEs that cater to hotels. It is a positive cycle.
Everything is interconnected in the tourism industry. In the garment manufacturing sector only the people in the respective area will benefit but with tourism the entire country benefits. A tourist who visits Bentota will not only stay in Bentota, they will also travel to Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Ratnapura, so everything is interconnected. In tourism you get fisheries, agriculture, logistics and transportation, every sector is involved in the tourismsector. That is how the benefits are distributed. These are the areas we mustlook at in terms of future economic plans.
Agriculture needs to be developed for the tourism sector. We need fresh produce, fish, meat and rice. In order to provide the quantity and quality, our farmers and fishermen need to have the capacity. In our country we can get everything fresh. We have the best tea and cinnamon in the world. We have high quality rice, vegetables, fruits and fish. We have a range of aromatic spices that provide different flavours. We should promote authentic Sri Lankan food as it is a unique aspect that we can offer tourists. I want to serve Sri Lankan food at exhibitions for the visitors from other countries to taste our food before they visit Sri Lanka. It is the best way to experience the country.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am a hotelier by profession. I have more than 40 years in the industry. I started at the bottom, as a hotel school graduate I trained outside Sri Lanka. I first worked as a chef and then moved on to management. I was in charge of food and beverages of the John Keells hotels in the Maldives. Then in 2002, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe invited me to head Sri Lanka Tourism, which I did from 2002-2004. Then I went back to the private sector. I was asked to be the CEO of the hospitality sector of Carsons. I turned around loss making properties to profit making entities. With my experience I have management and financial skills, which have enabled me to make properties profitable.
This time too, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asked me to head tourism. I came to Sri Lanka Tourism to work for the country not to earn money. As I am from the private sector I have already worked enough. I thought I must also contribute to the country. I never wanted to settle outside of Sri Lanka. Even during the height of the war I was in Sri Lanka because the country needed people. The tourism industry will be the main driver of the economy as it will generate employment, production and manufacturing capabilities and earn foreign exchange.
In 1980s you were managing the two best beach hotels during the most difficult times. What can you tell us about this experience?
Yes, we worked during the most difficult times. Tourist numbers were reducing and with that rates were reduced as well. Maintaining the required standard became a challenge because we could not invest or infuse funds back into the property. But as staff we protected the place we were working. We took a great deal of interest. My biggest concern at that time was how to motivate the staff. We looked after them and kept encouraging them.
We could not do anything new because funds were limited. Even when there were any breakages we had to seek alternatives as it was very difficult to get the original. We focused on limiting wastage. Managing accounts was more important than managing the hotel. Every rupee and cent counted. We analysed everything and when we did our procurement we made sure that we got the best prices. We did not compromise the quality of the food or the rooms. But we may have improvised where old bed sheets were reused as cloth for maintenance and cleaning.
We went to the source to purchase the best fish, meat, vegetables and fruits. We would have reduced our cold room facilities because we wanted to curtail our electricity consumption. We were alert because security was number one for us. Everyone worked, we did not think of our positions. At times even the manager was a porter. When guests came, we were all there in the reception, we would collect the luggage, label it and send to the rooms. That is how we worked at that time. We used to clean the pool ourselves. There was no segregation of work, everyone helped each other. That was our thinking at that time and we were able to perform.
That is why you need a person with an overall knowledge to manage a hotel. We gained a lot of experience, especially on how to survive a crisis and be successful.
All those properties made money. We never lost any of the properties. We were a team and we were so happy to work. It was a challenging time that made us who we are today.
And you were the first to start the boutique hotel concept?
Yes, we started the boutique hotel concept with Warahena Walauwwa. Homestay was also introduced by us because the people benefit directly. We have about 500 homestay units at the moment.
What is your message to the readers?
You must support tourism. We ask people to work with us and also protect the environment. We are expecting four million tourists into the country, therefore we need to step up and perform. We encourage people to join the industry because there is great potential.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country and we have the most hospitable people in the world. Let us showcase the best of our country - our culture, heritage, nature, wildlife and food.
- By Udeshi Amarasinghe. Assisted by Nawya Ponnamperuma
- Photography Mahesh Bandara and Menaka Aravinda