Looking east: A recent influx of Chinese visitors has the sector preparing for future growth

One aim of Sri Lanka’s is to attract 2.2m tourists in 2016, an increase of 22% on 2015, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA). Achieving this goal will require growth from a handful of key foreign markets, including India, Pakistan and some Gulf countries. Arguably more important than all of these, however, is China. Over the past five years Chinese tourists have travelled in large numbers to Sri Lanka, and are becoming one of the South Asian country’s most important sources of visitors.

According to SLTDA data, in 2015 nearly 215,000 tourists from China visited Sri Lanka, up almost 68% from the previous year. In preparation for continued growth in this market in the coming years, the sector is making a concerted push to develop products and services aimed at Chinese visitors. “The industry does not yet have the capacity to handle the Chinese market,” Lalin Michael Jinasena, the chairman of Casa Colombo, a boutique hotel brand in the capital, told OBG. “But we need to be ready for them. The sector is in the midst of a major shift in preparation for continued growth in this area in the coming years.”

In Figures

In terms of tourist arrivals, no other nationality has grown faster than China. In both 2008 and 2009 around 10,000 Chinese tourists travelled to Sri Lanka annually, accounting for just over 2% of total arrivals each year. Beginning in 2010, however, arrivals from China began to grow rapidly, in line with China’s expanding middle-class population.

In 2011 the country attracted 17,000 Chinese tourists, followed by 21,220 in 2012 and 51,704 in 2013, according to SLTDA statistics. In 2014 and 2015 the figures continued to swell, with 128,166 and 214,783 Chinese tourists arriving in the country, respectively, amounting to 8.4% and 12% of total annual visitors.

Preparations Under Way

Given this rapid growth, both state and private sector operators have made moves to boost the industry’s capacity to handle Chinese tourists. In mid-2015 the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau (SLTPB) held a series of talks with visiting government and industry representatives from China. After the meeting the SLTPB announced a wide-ranging strategy to support the segment’s continued growth. As well as traditional methods, such as sending a delegation to Chinese travel fairs, the plan includes meetings with China-based travel agencies, digital social media advertising in the country and a campaign to attract Chinese investment to Sri Lanka’s tourism sector.

On the private side, hotels, restaurants and individual tour operators are taking various steps to facilitate Chinese-language services and to cater more generally to Chinese travel preferences. John Keells Holdings, Sri Lanka’s largest luxury hotel operator and a major domestic real estate development firm, recently began arranging regular charter flights between Colombo and China. Sri Lankan Airlines, meanwhile, has added flights to Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou in recent years, in an effort to boost travel capacity to a growing supply market.

“We have been doing a lot of promotions in China over the past three-to-four years,” Mahen Kariyawasan, the managing director of Andrew, an independent tour operator, and the immediate past president of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators, told OBG. “These efforts have clearly paid off. Nonetheless, now we are scrambling to find Chinese-speaking guides and restaurants that serve Chinese food, for example.” In an effort to meet short-term demand, stopgap measures are not uncommon. “I recently told my staff to install a Chinese-language translation app on their smart phones,” said Casa Colombo’s Lalin Michael Jinasena. “This is not a perfect or long-term solution, but it works for the moment.” Despite concerns that slowing economic growth in China could mean fewer outbound tourists, Sri Lanka is preparing to accommodate the continued growth of this market for the foreseeable future.