Interview: Hiran Cooray
In what ways is the country positioning itself as a luxury tourism destination?
HIRAN COORAY: We have to focus on quality rather than quantity. If we only prioritise quantity, then our sector will not earn money and our natural resources will be depleted. In effect, we would only be subsidising travellers to come to enjoy the country and there would be no long-term benefits for the government or the people of this country. In order to focus on quality, we should aim to have at least 80% of travellers be high spenders, with the remaining 20% being budget travellers who will also tend to spend money within the local communities. Although the distribution of money from budget travellers to local communities is positive, around 50% of their spending goes into the informal sector, which is not healthy for the country.
To change perceptions about Sri Lanka, we must promote the country, brand it as a destination and pursue those markets willing to spend. After all, we have one of the most beautiful islands of this size. Sri Lanka is rich in biodiversity, culture, tea plantations, historical sites, beaches and many other attractions. We need to let potential travellers know about what we have to offer the world.
How do you assess the competitive landscape within the industry, given that international brands are entering the domestic market?
COORAY: Recognised international brands are coming here because they have a larger global reach. The fact that a wide mix of brands is now here gives international travellers confidence and comfort knowing that these places are available in Sri Lanka. They have, and will continue to, elevate the entire industry.
This presents opportunities for local companies like ours to raise our standards and elevate our brands in order to compete with them. Across the industry competitive steps are being taken, whether it is upgrading facilities or transitioning hotels into the luxury segment.
What needs to be done to promote the country’s less frequented destinations?
COORAY: As we look to encourage tourists to travel to areas that are less frequently visited, we must ensure that sustainable tourism is prioritised. This involves considering local communities and any potential ecological impacts of tourism. Kandy, Ella and Sigiriya are all beautiful destinations, but in reality there is so much more to be showcased and there is so much more to see. It is the responsibility of industry players to create unique experiences in new locations and for the government to offer investors incentives to develop these areas. Opening new areas to visitors will lead to an increased number of local communities benefitting from tourism, rather than a select few. Tourism should be for everyone and I believe that the industry has the ability to generate more benefits for the country.
As Sri Lanka looks to increase annual tourist arrivals to over 4m by 2020, is the sector ready in terms of human resources to cater for such an influx?
COORAY: Human resources in the global context are a widespread issue, and Sri Lanka’s tourism sector is not immune to these challenges. The development of skill is an ongoing process and if we are to continue evolving and improving, we need to train and encourage the country’s youth. One strategy is to focus on young adults over the age of 18 who may have had limited learning opportunities, and teach them the English and hospitality skills that are in high demand in the tourism sector. We should also recruit those Sri Lankans who have lived overseas, gained experience and international exposure, and have returned with a diverse set of skills. We are currently seeing many return to Sri Lanka for elevated positions such as supervisors and company executives. Yes, there is a high demand for human resources to cater to the rising number of tourists, but education, training and skills development is a constant cycle that we are improving with every year.
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