Friday, January 29, 2010


Hoteliers big and small in Sri Lanka are getting ready to cash in on what they say is the inevitable boom around the corner after last year's end to the nation's bloody quarter-century-old civil conflict. Tourism in this tropical-island nation was one of the industries hit hardest by the war between government forces and the rebels. From the white-sand beaches of Hikkaduwa to the verdant mountains of Kandy, the tourism industry has endured a 25-year-old yo-yo ride with profits fluctuating from year to year with the state of the conflict.

Now the Sri Lankan hospitality industry is busy spreading the message to the world that the country is not only safe but has many attractions to offer. The Sri Lankan economy has historically reached an important juncture arising from the recent domestic developments. The ending of the conflict is helping greater integration of the North and East provinces with the rest of the country. The country's infrastructure in terms of roads, airport, road transport, hotels, telecommunication and picnic spots are among the world's best.

The $400 million industry is padding up for arrivals to spike sharply with the onset of the 2009-10 winter seasons. For business visitors, efforts are underway to project Sri Lanka as an excellent destination for meetings. There are special Sri Lankan packages for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions). "The word has definitely got across that the war has ended," says one of my friend who is an executive from Sri Lanka Conventions' Bureau, a government body promoting the island's conference facilities. "The numbers may not show an increase just yet, but the number of inquiries has jumped, and we will see the upward swing by year 2010"

Not all operators are so optimistic. "The business trend will go up, but it will take time for some substantial variants in the current trends to take place," says my friend who work as a manager at the Cinnamon Grand, voted the best five-star city hotel in Sri Lanka by the government's tourism awards. He says there has been no change thus far in arrival figures to suggest that tourists are flocking here but acknowledges that the trend could pick up with upcoming winter arrivals. The key for Sri Lankan businesses to take advantage of the opportunity will be their marketing tactics. During the war, tour operators and government promotion efforts marketed the island's diversity through packages like archaeological tours, tours to Buddhist holy sites, whale-watching, elephant safaris and even cricket tours. Those were all limited to areas well outside any potential conflict zone. "What Sri Lanka has now is essentially a new destination; we can market the north, south, east and west. It is nothing like what we had before."

Tourist arrivals and earnings had begun increasing in 2002, when the Sri Lankan government signed a truce with the rebels in February. The upward trend also helped cushion the after-effects of the 2004 tsunami, which left the coastal hotels in tatters. Between 2004 and 2005, tourist arrivals declined by less than 5%, according to government statistics. The revival lasted until 2006, when arrivals peaked at just above half a million and earnings climbed to $410 million for the year. But the war returned with a vengeance in late July 2006, tourist visits dropped in 2007 and 2008. The downhill slide continued into 2009 as well; monthly arrivals fell by double-digit margins in the first five months of 2009 but it picked up from July onwards.

Sri Lanka's tourist outfits are split on how the global economic crisis will play out in their market. Because of the global economic downturn, there is still not much interest on long-haul travel. That the effects of the global credit crunch could turn out to be a real dampener. The credit crisis has come at a really unfortunate time for Tourism industry in Sri Lanka. Still, others argue that good PR can revive the local industry. Sri Lanka Tourism has to launch an aggressive marketing campaign to make this opportunity work and have to tap into new markets.
Now around 120,000 people who make a living out of tourism are betting that their fortunes will change for the better permanently. With the war over, the people who work for the industry have high hopes for the next winter season. "We make our money between November and April, when the season is on, and this time is going to be a good one," one of the guys working in the industry pointed out to me.

The month of December continued to show a healthy improvement in the tourist arrivals. The number of arrivals recorded was 56,862. It is a 16.2% increase compared to December 2008.The Tourist Hotels Association said in the arrival pattern, United Kingdom continued to dominate with about 81,500 arrivals. India generated a slightly higher figure of 82,600 arrivals. Region wise, Western Europe accounted for 170,000 arrivals, while the figure for South Asia stood at 126,000 arrivals.

President of the Tourist Hotels Association indicated that on an overall basis, the total arrivals to the country for 2009 ended at 447,890 compared to 428,475 for 2008. This is an overall 2.1% increase. This is very significant because cumulatively up to June 2009 there was an almost a 12% drop compared to the previous year, which means that in the last six months of 2009, this deficit was not only wiped out, but also there was a small 2.1% overall increase.

I hope the industry will bounce back with full swing, and the beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka get its past glorious times.


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