Sri Lanka as a global tourism hot spot is forging ahead embracing innovation, promoting change, touched by the trends of collaboration over competition, moved by authentic storytelling with a global perspective, is in the thick of shaping the future of tourism.
Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando spoke on Sri Lanka’s destination readiness and innovation in a new era at a webinar on 05th November, 2020 as the Guest Speaker, under the coordination and assistance of Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Sydney, Australia, in collaboration with Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.
This was one in a series of worldwide webinars organized and moderated by Julie King, CEO of Julie King Associates, Australia and a Board Member of Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO), under a new global platform(bonailie.world/webinars), presenting a ‘collaborative solution’ for global tourism disrupted by COVID-19, to challenge the new normal with innovation to positively shape the future of the tourism industry.
Speaking on the impact of COVID-19 disruption, Sri Lanka Tourism chairperson elaborated on the timely action and dedicated adherence to health guidelines by both people and government, though it affected the tourism industry to the extent of Airport closure with the finding of the first victim of Coronavirus.
The power of a meticulous strategic management plan lies in having a COVID Task force in place and continuous dissemination of information to people, contact tracing and tracking system activation, PCR testing, quarantining, sanitization and hospitalization well-coordinated in quick succession, to save lives and prevent the spread of illness. Besides wearing a face mask and adhering to regular sanitary practices by people supported the government, enabled combating and controlling the first wave of the pandemic.
A fast and furious second wave is being managed in the same lines up to date (5th November) with a fatality rate of 22 for 22 million people, an Asia’s best COVID management turnout by far and Sri Lanka is strictly adhering to health regulations and guidelines, Sri Lanka Tourism’s chairperson explained.
It has been a challenging period of time for the tourism industry yet, to ensure visitor confidence across the whole customer journey Sri Lanka is making her best effort at staying on top of visitor’s bucket list of fly-to destinations till the floodgates of international travel bursts open.
We see COVID-19 as a time span of opportunity – a time when the trade wheels have come to grinding halt leaving us to ponder, to look at the big picture and see things differently.
“In fact, we never wondered what is so special about Sri Lanka, what type of visitor or investor we needed and what we can offer differently to our visitors. We were marketing Sri Lanka country wise – we never looked at data, really” she admitted. This calm lull period gave us the much needed time to re-think inwardly, positively and proactively.
Australian government is really assisting Sri Lanka Tourism with the technical analysis, providing resources and research based marketing guidelines Sri Lanka needs.
“On careful study of global travel guidelines, we created a detailed guideline all our own for the hospitality industry, audited and endorsed by the global audit firm KMPG and it won Sri Lanka the ‘World Safe Travel & Tourism Award’- an accolade inspiring traveller confidence to the next level,” she stressed.
The KPMG standards insist on stringent adherence to health and sanitary regulations from tourist hotels, to regularly attend to PCR testing, disinfecting, have doctor-on-call, and other health counsel including quarantining staff members where and when necessary especially in this pandemic.
As per KPMG standardization, travelers must stay at a Category 1 hotel. She insisted that Sri Lanka has quite a lot of hotels in that category, which is of approved health and sanitary standards and it is mandatory for travelers to stay a minimum 14 days (at the moment).
Another requirement according to KMPG standards is to make a PCR test before and a PCR test when you arrive at the hotel within a time of maximum 2 hours (It may take just 20 minutes’ drive from the airport, sometimes) and also a PCR test when you are staying in the hotel, to doubly ensure your state of health and safety and that of those who serve you, during this pandemic.
People are travelling and wish to stay longer in a destination rather than travel frequently. They are looking at immersing in the whole culture maybe even working in some of those places even in new destinations the Australian Webinar moderator’s global findings have revealed.
“We have already started progress on that count, extending the Tourist Visa from 1 month to 6 months and further extending to 5 years’ multiple entry Visa to make it that much easy for visitors. Initially it would be 6 months and 14 days’ minimum stay. We want our visitors to stay way longer” she stated.
Our medical system has several layers under a health Minister overlooking 9 provinces, 25 Districts with Medical officers at each level in authority. This strategically managed medical system and well-coordinated network has the capacity and the expertise to handle health situations quickly and efficiently, she affirmed.
Sri Lanka has a very strong traditional indigenous medical practice and therapies to prevent, combat and heal ailments and maintain wellness, quite unique to Sri Lanka. We attribute our survival in the pandemic also to this practice which is prevalent in villages. In the pandemic, our everyday Ayurveda therapies and wellness practices act as a preventive therapy, she admitted.
Most Sri Lankan expatriates from wherever in the world are keen to return home and travelers seek to come to experience the magical Sri Lanka but we have not opened our airports yet. We may look at the near future probably December, if the situation permits, she voiced her enthusiasm in playing her role in supporting the economy.
Sri Lanka Tourism is utilizing the COVID period as an opportunity, working on getting prepared for the rush once the airports open. She said that Sri Lanka has a second international airport and 5 airports in all including the City airport which was opened recently. We also have 14 domestic airports that take seaplanes helicopters etc. For Private Jets are now offered a 24-hour permit in place of the previous 72 hours, to encourage the high-end traveler and investor arrivals.
In the transport segment, Sri Lanka is looking at upgrading the rail transport system and also looking positively at the under-utilized canal system which could prove a sure scenic tourism attraction and a more enjoyable cruise, a cooler option to ease the road traffic congestion.
Sri Lanka is looking at sustainability as key in new product development and enhancements. “We are looking at some of the popular sites of a customer journey and Sigiriya, will be our first sustainable destination. We are looking at making Yala too into a conservancy like in East Africa with private sector involvement, as the public sector needs their support and resources.
We are pushing the criteria as mandatory for all new projects and local and foreign investors are willingly joining the fray. If one wants to invest in Sri Lanka in a boutique hotel they too can work on sustainable criteria, she reiterated on the eco-friendly strategy.
Sri Lanka is working on multiple areas with the help of World Bank and after analyzing global tourism Apps, we are currently designing a new App for Sri Lanka Tourism—App Zero version—with UNDP assistance she revealed. App Zero version contains the online immigration form where you need to provide a little bit more information as to where you will be staying in a Level 1 KMPG standardized Hotel when applying for your travel Visa.
App Zero would be one unique to serve Sri Lanka’s needs and requirements containing information and data for visitor management and more interestingly function as a tour guide, support and safety mechanism for the tourists as well.
It includes over 500 new sites ideally for hiking, camping etc. to serve traveler preferences of whether they want to experience a Buddhism lead or Ramayana trail or even trek a tea garden path. A visitor can rate the tour guide and provide feedback in the App itself.
The tourism App will have a complaint management system in place, space to share your ideas and upload your pictures. Once a visitor enters the Level One hotel to stay, the Provincial medical officer will automatically receive an email informing him of the arrival. It’s not just certification and paperwork in Sri Lanka. The public health officers too will be informed. The tourism App will be beneficial for all, in many ways than one.
For the first time in the Sri Lankan Police history a DIG for Tourism has been enlisted to look after the interests of travelers entering the island nation. The App has many helpful features like an emergency button for the police station and location sharing to receive help, as we promote zero tolerance against any harm to tourists in Sri Lanka. We are taking precautions not to entertain any issues, she said vehemently.
Government is supporting the local tourism industry giving priority to the low-end segment who have been affected and also looking at alternative working arrangements – some have moved out to agriculture and technology based industry, understanding the current demands.
Being realistic, the tourism worker numbers wouldn’t be as before. Thailand has 29million tourists but we never went for mass scale tourism – the highest we have had is 2.3millon.
Sri Lanka still requires to find a model which is resilient, to that extent we are looking at a social protection scheme from which we are getting some help. Upskilling our people in the hospitality industry is on the agenda, expanding in to new initiatives of skills development with Australian and Swiss training of chefs to tour guides in the hotel school.
CNN, NBC and BBC channels advertised Sri Lanka free of charge. Currently we are promoting a couch safari online and have gathered several million followers already. We got response beyond count on live streaming our wild life and thousands in the audience responded that they just want to come over. Actually we showed a glimpse. We will continue with live streaming on the couch safari lines for Dolphins and Whales besides other tourism products like mask making, food and share Sri Lanka with the world.
A huge shift is trending towards human connected marketing from inspirational to emotional storytelling, more authentic and immersed in local culture. We are also learning from South Africa and accessing training from Australia. We are watching, observing, collaborating with them and learning from people globally.
We are looking in to is Wellness seriously. We never looked at globally promoting what we have – its unique and not necessarily Ayurveda. German, Middle East and Japanese markets understand it and the other global markets are still untapped. European Union has provided us some funding to pursue on those aspects.
We are also looking at a Virtual Travel Fair next year to encourage travel agents and to market our products. We are planning to give the SMEs a place in our events to market their ware. They have unique products but are not tech savvy and we want the government to support and expose their talent and unique products to the world.
Sri Lanka has wellness, adventure, tea plantations, the wildlife, the culture, the food, Buddhism and more that Asia has to offer within a small compact land mass. It’s up to Sri Lankans to change the infra structure, make the visitor’s journey change and improve the products. You will find Sri Lanka moving towards nature much more than ever before.
Sri Lanka Tourism have a detailed action plan and people are assigned with responsibilities to get things happening. In fact, COVID disruption has provided the vital opportunity for change.
In conclusion she summed up the whole global perspective. “Digital marketing has pushed to the fore and partnerships have emerged critical for survival. The shift we see trending is the move from competition to collaboration. We see countries working together in the future to reshape the future of tourism. We would be open to promote any other country together. It’s the way forward”.