Tharindra Gooneratne taps into Sri Lanka’s tourism potential

“Then there was Ceylon: the place where Paradise was located” – Russian author Anton Chekhov was not alone in his admiration for the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean.’ Marco Polo once described Ceylon as being “for its size, better circumstanced than any island in the world” while George Bernard Shaw declared that if he wasn’t an Irishman, he’d choose to be a Ceylonese.

Fast forward to today and we see the same sense of admiration in National Geographic, which declared that “a visit to rising ecotourism star Sri Lanka is kind of like having the best of Africa and Asia all rolled into a single easy to get around island.”

Sometimes, we need a tourist to remind us how wonderful our country is.

For example, few know that Sri Lanka has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than Egypt. Or that Yala has the highest density of leopard in the world. Even fewer know that Ceylon Tea was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s favourite beverage and Sir Richard Branson fell in love with Ginger Beer after discovering it in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s status as a tourist destination has undoubtedly been elevated since the end of the civil conflict. For instance, annual tourist arrivals have more than quadrupled in the past decade from less than 450,000 arrivals in 2008 to over 2.1 million last year. Even more impressively, revenue from tourism increased more than tenfold during the same period to almost US$ 4 billion in 2017.

Focussing on the numbers is vital but attracting the most suitable profile of tourists may be even more important. A cursory glance at the data indicates that there has been progress on this front with daily tourist receipts almost doubling from US$ 88 in 2010 to 170 dollars in 2017. The growing presence of international hotel chains on the island will undoubtedly help boost this figure further in the coming years.

In addition to the quality of hotels, maintaining high standards for supplementary establishments such as restaurants and bars will be crucial if Sri Lanka is to sustain its tourism boom. Sadly, this is an aspect that is in urgent need of attention.

As of March, there were only two restaurants registered with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) in the entire Polonnaruwa District. The same applied to Trincomalee while Nuwara Eliya had only three.

Another aspect that requires attention is the under-marketed and underutilised assets of our country – such as the historical cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. For example, the revenue generated by tourists in Sigiriya in 2016 was almost double the combined income from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa during the same period.

Raising our visibility whilst concurrently increasing and improving facilities (e.g. toilets) for tourists at such locations would be crucial to enhancing Sri Lanka’s profile in the global tourism market. Similarly, other assets such as Arugam Bay – which was recognised by CNN as one of the 50 best surf spots in the world – need to be marketed better as well.

Finally, a targeted marketing campaign should also be executed in key source markets such as Japan, which dropped out of the top 10 list of source destinations in 2016. China is another source market that has been growing exponentially in recent years.

With Chinese tourists accounting for over 20 percent of the global tourism spend, it is important that Sri Lanka enhances the resources available for such tourists – having tour guides who are fluent in Mandarin, for instance.

It’s certainly heartening to see the world finally take notice of Sri Lanka. With the right vision and execution, we can ensure that our island nation becomes a top tier destination in the world. After all, it shouldn’t be too hard to attract more visitors to ‘Paradise on Earth.’