Experts call for balanced tourism promotions

  • Suggest B2C promotions involving digital media to repair country’s image
  • Negative global headlines on SL led to massive image crisis: Sanath Ukwatte
  • Digital promotion alone is not sufficient: Dmitri Cooray
  • Sri Lanka should stop comparing itself with others: Kimarli Fernando

By Shenal Fernando

Sri Lanka’s tourism sector needs to opt for a more balanced tourism promotional mix with a greater focus on B2C (Business-to-Consumer) promotion in order to repair the recent damage caused to the country’s image, according to tourism sector experts.

Accordingly, industry experts have called for Sri Lanka tourism’s traditional B2B (Business-to-Business)-focused tourism promotional model to be adapted with more focus on B2C (Business-to-Consumer) promotion involving digital media. This is due to the fact that recent headlines regarding the political and economic crisis in the country do not project an image conducive to that of a mass tourism destination.

Experts further highlighted that increased focus on B2C tourism promotion represented a more cost-effective method to promote Sri Lanka, pointing out that digital media would allow promotional activities to be targeted to specific niche markets based on Sri Lanka’s needs and would also allow Sri Lanka tourism to position itself based on its strengths.

Historically, tourism has been the largest source of foreign exchange inflows into Sri Lanka, behind foreign worker remittances and the garment and textile export industry. In 2021, the cumulative earnings from the tourism industry were a mere $ 262 million, down considerably from the pre-Covid levels of $ 3.5-4 billion.

The recovery of the tourism industry and its foreign earnings represent a crucial component of Sri Lanka’s economic recovery going forward, especially to ensure that Sri Lanka’s Balance of Payments (BOP) deficit remains at manageable levels going forward.

Sri Lanka’s image crisis

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, former President of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) and Mount Lavinia Hotel Group Chairman Sanath Ukwatte stated that while B2B tourism promotion via tourism fairs and road shows continued to be important in order to signal to the global tourism industry that Sri Lanka was back in business, the priority going forward should be to address the public relations crisis regarding the ‘Sri Lankan’ brand.

“Due to bankruptcy and the other economic issues faced by Sri Lanka dominating headlines globally, the country is currently facing a massive image crisis which needs to be addressed as a priority. In order to achieve this, it is crucial that we engage in promotional activities at the consumer level,” he explained.

He pointed out that Sri Lanka’s ground-level situation was currently extremely conducive for tourism due to the over 80% devaluation of the Sri Lankan Rupee, making Sri Lankan prices very attractive to any tourist. Therefore, he claimed that increased focus on B2C tourism was pivotal in order to achieve the needed resurgence of the local tourism sector.

Accordingly, Ukwatte highlighted the need to revamp Sri Lanka’s digital tourism promotion drive, which he pointed out was not only cost-effective but had a wider reach than traditional marketing.

“While Sri Lanka tourism’s current promotional mix targets both businesses and consumers, consumer promotion lags behind business promotion. The country needs both, because at the end of the day, if the consumer is not convinced then we will face a serious issue.”

Digital tourism promotion

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Jetwing Hotels Manager – Operations Dmitri Cooray noted that over the past few years, most private sector tourism stakeholders had adopted digital media as a crucial part of their promotional activities.

“Social media and tourism blogs are being increasingly used by most companies in the tourism industry, including by Jetwing Hotels. We have involved influencers from Sri Lanka as well as overseas in our promotional activities. However, such digital promotional activities have understandably slowed down over the past few years due to Covid and other issues,” he said.

According to him, the benefit of promoting tourism through social media is that it allows you to reach a much larger audience at the fraction of the cost incurred through traditional promotional mediums.

Elaborating further, he stated: “Placing an advertisement in a high-end international magazine will cost around $ 4,000-5,000 per ad. Placing an advertisement in the Qatar or Emirates magazines will cost around $ 4,000. In contrast, you can advertise your business at a fraction of the cost through social media.”

Cooray pointed out that social media promotion allowed you to pinpoint the target market for your promotional activities.

However, he admitted that digital promotion in itself was not sufficient due to the range of varied clientele for the tourism products on offer.

“If you are looking to attract younger customers then promotion through social media is sufficient. However, when you consider the high-end properties that charge around $ 600-1,000, their clientele will be making their holiday choices by browsing the internet or luxury magazines,” he explained.

Positioning of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, former Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Kimarli Fernando stated that Sri Lanka needed to understand the need to position its brand appropriately and to do it consistently. She pointed out that Sri Lanka should position itself considering its strengths or features, which included its diversity, compactness, and wellness.

Explaining further, she stated that Sri Lanka should stop comparing itself to other countries as it needed to position itself by focusing on its own strengths, adding: “Sri Lanka cannot be everything for everybody.”

“If you want to experience the best nightlife, Sri Lanka is not the place for it. For that you should look to Thailand. If you want to enjoy a good retail experience, you will go to Singapore or Dubai. If you try to be everything, you will be nothing,” she asserted.

She further pointed out that during her tenure as the SLTDA Chairperson, Sri Lanka tourism had positioned itself as the safest place to travel during Covid-19. “Covid-19 affected everybody. We used it as an opportunity to create a narrative in the eyes of the traveller that Sri Lanka is the safest place to travel. We told the world that ‘we are the safest travel destination, we have a safety- and security-certified hotel waiting for you, and it is safe for you to travel here’.”

Considering the current context, she called on Sri Lanka tourism to convince the international community that Sri Lanka represented an attractive tourist destination for an enjoyable holiday, because tourists who arrived in the country were looking for a holiday and not for an opportunity to engage in charity.

While she admitted that there might be tourists who had a fondness for Sri Lanka and who might be motivated to travel to Sri Lanka in order to bring foreign exchange, such tourists were a minority and accounted for a negligible amount of tourist arrivals to the country.

“We need to give tourists the assurance that they will not be inconvenienced in our country. International media has widely reported that there is a food shortage in Sri Lanka. I admit that food prices have gone up, but would you say that there is a shortage, especially of the kind of food that is required by tourists? There might be a shortage of some imported cheeses or alcohol, but we can adapt and think innovatively outside the box – if you cannot serve foreign alcohol, serve an arrack cocktail; make it trendy like the Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel,” she stated.

Fernando noted that the current crisis was a good opportunity to reinvent Sri Lanka and reposition the Sri Lankan tourism product.

“We need to stop comparing ourselves with other countries. Sri Lanka is unique and has amazing experiences you cannot get in other countries. It is a compact tourist destination which has everything Asia has to offer, where you can see the hill country, beaches, amazing wildlife, and amazing vegan food. We have ayurvedic medicine and the highest density of waterfalls in the world. We need to position ourselves as an island of well-being, whether it is contemporary wellness where you walk under a waterfall or go hiking and camping or the conventional, traditional wellness which involves ayurvedic medicine,” she said.

High-end tourists vs. low-end tourists

Addressing the prominent narrative that Sri Lanka only targeted low-end tourists while countries such as the Maldives attracted high-end tourists, Jetwing Hotels’ Dmitri Cooray stated that such a narrative was false and misguided.

He pointed out that it was inappropriate to compare Sri Lanka with the Maldives, considering that the Maldives was a set of hotel islands with over 70% of its hotels belonging to the high-end category, and whose tourism product on offer involved only beaches and tranquillity. In comparison, the tourism product on offer in Sri Lanka ranges from history, culture, wildlife, and religious and archaeological sites.

Elaborating further, he stated: “The cost of operations in the Maldives is very high because everything needs to be imported since nothing grows there other than coconut trees. Therefore, almost everything needs to be sourced from outside the Maldives, hence, their price points are higher.”

He also claimed that contrary to the prevailing narrative, Sri Lanka received a sufficient share of high-end tourists as reflected in the fact that there were many high-end tourist establishments flourishing in the country which charged rates of $ 600-1,000 per night.

However, he noted that considering the diverse tourism products on offer in Sri Lanka, it was better to have a mix of high-end and low-end tourists in order to ensure that the economic benefits of tourism were spread throughout the economy instead of aggregating among certain large corporations. In particular, he pointed out that when places such as Ella or Hiriketiya became popular, it created employment and business opportunities for the local communities.

Other issues

Mount Lavinia Hotel Group Chairman Sanath Ukwatte claimed that another major issue impacting Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was the current crisis related to the lack of airline seats to Sri Lanka, which was impacting the number of tourists arriving in the country.

He explained that the lack of airline capacity in Sri Lanka was due to two main issues.

“Firstly, it is due to the lack of jet fuel. When these long-haul flights arrive in the country, they need to fill up their tanks before departing. However, Sri Lanka is supplying fuel at a limited capacity at present due to the prevailing shortage of jet fuel as a result of the foreign exchange shortage.

“Secondly, due to the foreign exchange scarcity, many international airlines operating in Sri Lanka are struggling to repatriate their money generated from the seats sold in Sri Lanka back to their countries. As a result, a number of leading airlines, particularly from the Middle East, have cut down the frequency of flights to Sri Lanka. Consequently, the prices of our airline seats have surged exponentially. We need to increase the frequency of flights to Colombo.”