New air routes and niche offerings to increase the number of Indian tourists in Sri Lanka

 

Despite recent setbacks, including the four-month closure of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in 2017 and unusual flooding in the south, Sri Lanka’s tourism sector continues to post sizeable gains. According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), total tourist arrivals grew by 3.2% to hit 2.1m in 2017, with 384,628 coming from India, an increase of 7.8% on 2016, 268,952 from China, a decrease of 1%, and 201,879 hailing from the UK, representing an increase of 7.3% on the previous year. India is already the leading source of overseas visitors to the country, accounting for more than 17.4% of inbound air traffic in 2016, according to the SLTDA. Noting its relative affordability and close proximity to India, as well as the neighbouring country’s quickly growing middle class, authorities are positioning Sri Lanka as a key destination for Indian travellers.

From Here to There 

To reach its short- and medium-term targets, authorities are making it easier for international travellers to visit by improving air connectivity. A number of open skies agreements are already in place, one of the first being a deal brokered with Japan in 2012, and Sri Lanka is looking to replicate this with other countries. In December 2016 the country signed an open skies agreement with India, allowing local carriers unlimited access to six Indian hubs – Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai – as well as giving Indian carriers greater access to Sri Lankan routes.

The national carrier SriLankan Airlines (SLA) is also steadily expanding its network into the subcontinent. In July it added three new routes to the southern Indian cities of Visakhapatnam, Hyderabad and Coimbatore, increasing its flight service footprint to 14 destinations and 126 flights per week. “India is a market with the utmost potential for domestic air carriers,” Ajith Dias, chairman of SLA, told OBG.

Understanding the importance of efficient air travel, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) announced plans to upgrade the facilities at BIA. Work will include improvements to the existing runway and the addition of a second. The project, set for completion in 2020, is expected to bring the airport’s annual passenger capacity to 15m.

Niche Markets 

The fast-paced nature of Sri Lanka’s projects to expand its air connectivity is preparing the island nation to be a top destination for the emerging generation of Indian tourists. However, while steadily increasing, the number of tourists from India fell short of the expectations set by the SLTPB, which had targeted a 26% increase in 2017. To boost numbers, recent advertising campaigns have targeted Indian tourists directly by promoting cinema tourism, religious pilgrimages based on the Ramayana and, in particular, the country’s appeal as a high-end wedding destination.

Efforts appear to be working. Recognising the potential of Sri Lanka as a key destination, Vijai Sardesai, the minister of town and country planning in Goa, told local media in January 2018 that Sri Lanka had become a major challenger in regional tourism. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s topography is similar to the popular Indian regions of Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; however, the country distinguishes itself through its relative low cost and as a destination fairly untouched after decades of civil conflict. Local officials are also working to set themselves apart from rising competition via sports tourism and ecotourism.

Mutual Benefits 

While some Indian regions see Sri Lanka as competition, others recognise the benefits of joining forces to attract international tourists. In July 2017, for example, a joint initiative with the Indian state of Kerala saw the two parties working towards broadening the range of attractions on offer in a bid to keep holidaymakers in the region longer, thereby, benefitting both destinations. Additionally, in the same month the SLTPB participated for the first time in India’s Travel & Tourism Fair in Kolkata.

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The Report: Sri Lanka 2018

Tourism chapter from The Report: Sri Lanka 2018

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