Interview: John Amaratunga

In what ways is the emergence of online agencies disrupting tour operations?

JOHN AMARATUNGA: The ministry works very closely with tour operators, and the established operators are both cautious and optimistic about the emerging online agencies. At the end of the day, the online agencies are eating into operators’ share of the market and obviously they are not too pleased about it. But this is the reality and they have to accept and adapt to the new business model. Personally, I see online agencies as a positive development, because thanks to them, we now have a steady flow of inbound traffic throughout the year as opposed to just seasonal traffic brought in by operators. I have been informed that nearly 60% of inbound traffic during the off season is now generated through online agencies. Operators are reinventing themselves in the face of these emerging changes and it is a good thing for the industry as a whole. Our objective is to ensure that all actors work within the established framework. In this regard it is important that online agencies fall in line with local legal requirements, just as the operators do, so that there is a level playing field and everyone benefits.

How can the introduction of low-cost air carriers help expand the inbound tourism market?

AMARATUNGA: We must keep in mind that tourism is directly linked to income levels. One must have financial resources in order to travel. The introduction of low-cost carriers opens a travel window to a segment of people who up until now were prevented from travelling solely due to economic constraints. Travel is becoming a way of life in modern times. Low-cost air carriers will entice low-income travellers to join the travel bandwagon, thereby opening up economic opportunities for an entirely new category of service providers. As such I see potential for growth in both short-haul regional traffic and also long-haul traffic, especially families. We are still at an early stage with regard to the introduction of low-cost carriers, so we will need to study the patterns in order to determine how the inbound market will be impacted. Our neighbour India is dominated by low-budget carriers and it is just a matter of time before Sri Lanka is included in that network.

How can Sri Lanka maintain its unique image in the face of tourism standardisation practices?

AMARATUNGA: I agree that standardisation is the new world order. This applies to tourism as well, to an extent. While services could well be standardised and should be, there are some aspects of tourism that can never be regulated. For instance our unique Sri Lankan brand of hospitality cannot be found or duplicated anywhere else. We Sri Lankans have an inherent trait of hospitality that is built into our DNA. Our willingness to help strangers, our welcoming ways and a permanent smile are unique to us. Furthermore, what Sri Lanka a has to offer is also absolutely unique. There is no other island of this size that can offer the authenticity, diversity and history that we can. These are offerings that do not fall within the parameters of standardisation per se. Sri Lanka is a unique travel and tourism proposition that can well withstand the implementation of global travel norms.

What are the benefits of promoting Sri Lanka as a regional as opposed to a standalone destination?

AMARATUNGA: We have no issue in being identified as a standalone destination. In fact we prefer being identified that way. But we need to be mindful of emerging trends and adapt accordingly. For instance we are now actively promoting cruise tourism and we are trying to attract the big cruise liners to sail our way. However, in order to do this, economies of scale dictate that we need to work with the Maldives and India to be attractive to the cruise companies. Likewise there are other areas where we can benefit by going regional.