Interview: Sutheash Balasubramaniam

How can the public and private sectors collaborate to better promote the country’s brand globally?

SUTHEASH BALASUBRAMANIAM: National tourism policies and the sector’s strategic plan will strive towards the consolidation of tourism-related ministries and state agencies. Quality engagement of the relevant bodies can drive motivation, and working with shared goals can secure win-win platforms for both the public and private sector. This will set the stage and confidence for the private sector to engage productively to bring forth innovation, quality and efficiency. Public-private collaboration is not a foreign concept in Sri Lanka, and previous efforts have demonstrated strong leadership. Currently, the country’s tourism industry is private-sector driven, with the state as facilitator. The strategic plan aims to harmonise these synergies to better portray the Sri Lankan brand on the global platform.

To what extent are sharing economy platforms impacting the local tourism industry, and what more can be done to regulate this area?

BALASUBRAMANIAM: The accommodation of tourists is one segment where the sharing economy has made an impact to some extent. A substantial percentage of overseas visitors find accommodation in the informal hospitality sector, which includes homestays and bungalows facilitated by online booking systems, such as Airbnb, and The emergence of car-hire services Uber and local brand PickMe is a good example in transportation. In the hospitality sector there is an increased use of online reviews, with guides and tours also adopting new technologies more and more. All of these sectors are digitally driven, and this direction is likely to continue in the coming years.

Apart from that, over the years hotels and restaurants have evolved to create strong links with local communities, connecting with small farmers and entrepreneurs for the supply of vegetables, fruits, dry food and souvenirs, for example. The concept of repairing, reusing and recycling resources is a common one across the tourism industry. At this point the state has no intention of regulating digital space or shared platforms for that matter. However, there are currently efforts under way to attempt to regulate the informal sector.

Which tourism segments offer the best potential for foreign direct investment (FDI)?

BALASUBRAMANIAM: While we have seen substantial investment in hotel building since the cessation of conflict in 2009, there are tremendous opportunities for FDI in areas which provide exciting and memorable experiences for tourists during their stay. Yachting marinas, large-scale convention halls and stadiums with capacity for 10,000-15,000 people, golf courses to hold international tournaments, theme parks and water sports are some of the best potential investments to support the growth of the industry.

At present, the sector is the third-largest foreign exchange (forex) earner and the generator of the largest direct and indirect employment opportunities in the country. The medium-term goal is to make tourism the number-one forex earner, which demonstrates the importance and dependency of tourism on the national economy. Investment is also sought for strengthening the transportation and logistics sectors.

How can Sri Lanka’s transport infrastructure be improved to enhance tourism?

BALASUBRAMANIAM: This is being addressed at the national level. While progress is being made to connect the length and breadth of the country through expressways, high-priority plans are under way to construct a new terminal at the Bandaranaike International Airport, revamp the urban airport in Ratmalana for landing private jets, and develop domestic airports and seaports around the island. In order to enhance the efficiency of the transportation system in Colombo, development of a light railway system is also in its planning stages.