The civil war which plagued Sri Lanka for almost 30 years ended in the year 2009 bringing in new hope and opportunity for the tourism industry. The major concern and the question is whether the Sri Lankan tourism industry is equipped with the right tools to serve the ever demanding top paying traveller in comparison to the regional competitors – Maldives, Seychelles, Zanzibar-Tanzania.
Sunny Sri Lanka is uniquely nestled in the heart of the Indian ocean with a land mass of 65,610 km². From the warm sandy beaches to the cooling central hills, the average temperature ranges from a sizzling 27°C to a chilling 10°C, bearing the characteristics of a tropical heaven. Sri Lanka boasts of its tropical rainforests, beautiful waterfalls, picturesque mountain ranges to a large variety of flora and fauna endemic to the island nation comparing with the regional competitors like Maldives (Which consists of 1190 islands) where natural resources are limited due to the geographical location.
Having easy access to the internet most Resorts/Hotels in Sri Lanka widely use the social media platforms such as Facebook, twitter, Instagram Etc. as marketing tools. The focus is merely to advertise the services it offers and not as a communication tool to listen and to talk to their guests. In Maldives each and every resort has allocated dedicated staff members in order to monitor, update and respond to their Facebook pages to communicate with potential and existing clientele.
Role of social media
Wider use of e-commerce tools such as Trip Advisor and online booking engines (e.g. Bookings.com, Agoda, Hotels.Com, Expedi.co, Travelocity.com, Hotwire.com, Priceline.com, MoreHotels4Less.cor, Orbitz.com, and Hotel Reservations.com) can help attract tourists. Furthermore, Sri Lankan websites, as a whole, have not been optimized for the Web – hence, they do not derive the best results. Further, majority of Sri Lankan guests/travellers who stay at local hotels/resorts are reluctant to write their first-hand experience in “Trip Advisor”. Majority of the high end guests/travellers who live all over the world uses “Trip Advisor” as a reliable source for recommendations of the Hotels/Resorts before they confirm the booking. Therefore positive feedbacks for a hotel/resort play a silent yet a vital role to improve the future of their guests/travellers arrivals.
Sri Lankan Hotels/Resorts should concentrate on Internet Payment Gateways (IPG) and ideally the collection banks should be of an international origin where the foreign tourist/travellers will be comfortable doing transactions (due to Exchange rates). Further, Amex platform has not yet been widely accepted by many vendors in the island. On the other hand Visa and Master cards have established their domain in the local arena compared to Amex; this has a negative effect on tourists who carry Amex cards especially the U.S and Canadian tourists to do their shopping, sightseing etc.
Due to the scarcity of natural resources and the location; Maldives face a unique challenge accessing power, all resorts are powered by generators 24 x 7 including RO Plants (reverse osmosis) to purify the salt water to fit for human consumption. Further additional water purification process is required in order to purify the water up to sparkling water level or drinking water level. Due to this reason the Operational Cost (Fixed) elements are higher which directly impacts the BEP (Break Even Point) compared to hotels/resorts in Sri Lankan; Hotels/Resorts owners and operators have the luxury of cheap hydropower and abundance of pure spring drinking water compared to Maldives.
Accessibility within the islands of Maldives is a costly affair, Male being the main island with a land mass of only 298 km², tourists need to make their way in sea planes or speed boats which the fare (per person- roundtrip) costs from US$ 200 to a whopping 600 US$; depending on the distance to the respective resort from the main island, where the only international airport is located.
At present tour operators in Maldives make somewhere around 20% to 30% from room rates as their commissions. Apart from that, they may seek kick back commissions as well. But in most instances foreign tour operators, ground handlers and local tour operators too demand a commission. As a result, the net income a resort earns is narrowed. Due to this reason the average room rate is higher of tour operator compared to a FIT; this has adversely affected the business of tour operators. This has resulted in a situation where most tourists make their bookings directly through the internet or call booking the resort to avoid extra cost, Maldives as a tourist destination heavily depend on its repeat clients on average 40% – 45% of all tourists are repeat customers
The situation in Sri Lanka is in contrast to Maldives, as the general rack rate (Room rate) is very much higher than the rates offered by tour operators, due to the continued business offered to hotels/resorts a discounted room rate is offered to tours operators. This system safeguards the interests of the tour operator and discourages tourists who exploit the industry.
The above comparison between Maldives and Sri Lanka highlights that the operational costs incurred by owners/ operators are very high in the Maldives, which directly impacts the overall pricing structure. Due to this reason the Maldives is an expensive destination for the average traveller. But in the case of Sri Lanka one should investigate as to why we can’t compete with Maldives and whether we have not taken adequate steps to attract the high end guests/travellers. At present tourist arrivals are monitored and accounted merely by counting the number of tourist arrivals at the airport (not all foreigners could be categori as tourists). We need to follow the UNWTO international standards to correctly calculate the actual tourist arrivals which focus on the average length of stay, how much money do they spend and the country of origin. By obtaining these figures a detailed report could be compiled to determine whether we are attracting the correct category of tourists to improve the economy.
Producing and retaining qualified and well trained staff is a big challenge in Sri Lanka since, the reward schemes are not attractive to retain them. Qualified and experienced personnel move to the Gulf, Maldives, Zanzibar – Tanzania, Mauritius, and Seychelles for higher salaries and perks. Lack of knowledge in global languages such as English, German, Russian, Italian and Mandarin has crippled the industry.
Personally I have my doubts that Sri Lankan authorities who are responsible for tourist promotions and administrations have adequate strategies or plans to steer industry. There are continuous complains from Hotel/Resort owners and operators that the current rules and regulations are not in favour of the tourism industry and lack of support, education and guidance are also seem to have a drawback. They should take the maximum advantage of well-known and reputed leading profiles of celebrity Chef Dr. Publis Silva, Chef Peter Kuruvita, Mr.Bandhula Ekanayake. Further, the key personnel of the government authorities should have a solid background of Tour Operating and E-Commerce.
Further, the participation in the “travel and tourism fairs and exhibitions” such as WTF – China , MITT – Moscow , ITB – Berlin, ATM – Dubai should be done as a country and not as individual Hotels/Resorts . The promotional videos also should telecast via “Travel and Living Channel”, “Discovery” as well. To attract High End Chinese guest, Sri Lankan Hotels/Resorts should concentrate on building “Over water rooms” (Water Villas on the Sea, Lagoons, Rivers and Lakes) and the ideal locations for this are Kalpitiya Lagoon and Jaffna Lagoon.
Fast and convenient ways of transferring Guests from Bandaranaike International Airport to their final destinations via Sea Planes or Trains with luxury compartments from Airport should be implemented. Leading Hotel/Resort brands such as the “The Peninsula” “Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts”, “Taj Hotels and Resorts”, “Belmond”, “Ritz-Carlton”, “Fairmont”, “Rosewood”, “Park Hyatt”, “Aman Resorts”, “Mandarin Oriental” , “Jumeirah” , “Minor Hotel Group” should be encouragd to invest in Sri Lanka. (The writer is Director Finance, Essque Zalu Zanzibar)