Research and Promotion – the Need of the Hour for Sri Lanka’s Tourism Industry

13th January, 2021 News and Updates,Opinion Pieces

An Interview with Momina Saqib, Country Director Sri Lanka – Market Development Facility

Those of us within the industry frequently discuss the immense potential of tourism to make a massive contribution to Sri Lanka’s economic growth. That is the underlying reason we persevere in the face of many challenges, and strive to improve the sector through initiatives such as the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance. The potential of tourism in Sri Lanka has also been recognised by many international organisations, who believe it has the ability to positively impact the country’s economic growth, create jobs and opportunities, and help develop communities across the island.

MDF is a program funded by the Australian government, which is doing a significant amount of work for the development of tourism, as well as other sectors in Sri Lanka. The Alliance had the opportunity to speak with Momina Saqib, the Country Director for Market Development Facility (MDF) Sri Lanka, regarding what MDF hopes to help Sri Lanka achieve through its involvement and support. The following is based on the insights shared by Momina during our discussion.

Striving to Increase Income Earning Opportunities

MDF is present across a number of countries in the Asia Pacific region, including Sri Lanka. The objective of the project, in all locations, is to increase sustainable income earning opportunities for disadvantaged groups, including women and those with disabilities. This can be in the form of new jobs, increased income or new income-earning opportunities.

MDF works with existing firms, government departments and private sector associations who are already present in the economy. What MDF brings to the table is innovation, expertise and best practices that can help improve performance. This is how the project ensures that any opportunity it creates for disadvantaged groups sustains long after its involvement finishes.

In Sri Lanka, MDF’s objectives are similar to its objectives in all markets – creating income opportunities for disadvantaged groups. Although the project wants to create as many inclusive opportunities as possible, it has to make choices regarding which areas it gets involved in. This choice is made based on the degree of impact the industry has on the community, and its potential to uplift lives and increase income earning capacity.

Momina says that tourism is a sector that MDF has identified as being important for Sri Lanka. Beyond that, their work is also involved in other sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, and developing new opportunities in value chains that sustain disadvantaged groups. The approach followed by MDF is to get people within these industries to work together with Sri Lankan businesses, associations or government departments, so that they can innovate, improve performance, improve products and services and improve competitiveness, to operate at a global level.

The goal is to ensure that Sri Lanka can leverage its competencies, whether it is the island’s natural beauty and attractions when it comes to tourism, or whether it is products like spices, herbs or crafts.

The Potential of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Industry

Momina believes that Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has immense potential to have a significant and lasting impact on the development of the country. She highlights the following as examples of what tourism can achieve from an economic and social perspective.

Ripple effect on multiple sectors – The relevance of tourism to Sri Lanka is massive if you consider both the direct and indirect impact it has on so many sectors, including transport, agriculture and fishing. The growth of tourism can improve the livelihoods of those who are indirectly connected to the sector, such as farmers supplying produce to hotels and restaurants, or craftsmen making souvenirs and trinkets.

Jobs and inclusivity – If tourism grows sustainably, it opens numerous opportunities and creates jobs in a number of areas. It can also increase the participation of women in the workforce, an area that Sri Lanka lags behind in, when compared with global benchmarks.

Community growth – Tourism growth can support communities that don’t always have many opportunities. Sri Lanka is transitioning into a service-based economy, the farming population is ageing, so you can see that people are looking at alternate opportunities of employment. Tourism is a sector that provides opportunities for upward mobility, to learn new skills, to access urban jobs, to grow into a job, all of which are fundamentally important for Sri Lanka as it transitions into a developed economy.

The Importance of Focussing on High-Value Tourism

While MDF supports many areas of tourism development in the country, a key question the team has asked is – what type of tourism is vital to support Sri Lanka’s sustainable growth agenda? Momina says that MDF strongly believes in the importance of Sri Lanka adopting a strategy that promotes high-value tourism.

High-value tourism does not just refer to high spending travellers. Instead, what is meant by high-value visitors are those who are interested in more authentic, community experiences. Travellers who engage with the Sri Lankan people, travelling to a wider geographic area, rather than limiting their travels to cities or popular touristy towns and emerge in authentic local experiences. The opportunity is to foster authentic experience development or support marketing to potential visitors who are interested in the culinary tradition of Sri Lanka, or those who are more into adventure, wellness or wildlife. If you target these different groups, then a lot more Sri Lankans can get involved in providing these services and hosting experiences. For example, communities in Mannar can offer birding experiences, those in Kitulgala can target adventure seekers, while people in Colombo can provide cultural or culinary experiences. A wider dispersion of the tourist dollar is something that is important to MDF.

High-value visitors are also focussed on sustainable, responsible business practices, which means there is more awareness on the part of the consumer. This also compels businesses to become more aware of sustainable practices and take the initiative to implement them.

As Momina highlights, at the end of the day, the reality is that there is a limit to the growth of tourism; there is a finite number of tourists that can come to Sri Lanka without the destination losing its value, without the ecological value of an attraction, or Sri Lanka’s natural resources being depleted. So, it really is a trade off – you can either have many tourists who bring little value, or you could have fewer tourists who bring more value.

Research and Promotion – Priorities for Post Pandemic Tourism Recovery

Coming out of the pandemic, Sri Lanka is stepping into a very challenging context, and to a rather unprecedented situation as far as the tourism sector goes. The reality of the situation is that Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is still playing catch up, compared to competing destinations.

Mainstream tourism in the country largely began after the end of the civil war in 2009; a period that was also marked by a boom in tourism worldwide. The Asian middle class was growing and travel was more affordable than ever. In addition, movements from social media to big data were making travel more approachable.

Sri Lanka was fortunate to ride that wave, with the country attracting tourists, and businesses within the sector growing significantly. All of that has understandably come to a halt now because of the pandemic. And while Sri Lanka was focussed on growing over the past decade, other destinations were more focussed on innovating – focussing on tourism research and segmenting markets.

As Momina points out, this is a very fundamental area where Sri Lanka needs to catch up, because now all markets are starting from the same baseline. Sri Lanka has to put in the work to position itself better, to understand what consumers are looking for, where to go and find the consumers who are willing to travel, who are willing to spend the money, and who are interested in what Sri Lanka has to offer.

If Sri Lanka is to find the answers to these questions, research and promotion are rather important, especially in this time frame, when the challenges are tougher than before.

Momina also believes that a lot of work needs to be done with regard to Sri Lanka’s product offering, especially in a post pandemic world. She points out that we need to identify the things that are inherently authentic to Sri Lanka and pay attention to how it can be offered to consumers. Developing products and experiences and packaging them attractively are some of the big pieces that this lull period gives us time to focus on and get right.

Working with the Sri Lankan Government and the Private Sector

Australia has been working with the Sri Lankan government and the private sector for a long time, and MDF has been building on that work. The Australian government supported Sri Lanka’s initial Tourism Strategic Plan which was put in place from 2017-2020. It has also created many exchange opportunities for Sri Lankan businesses and government officials, providing the opportunity to bring back knowledge and expertise to Sri Lanka.

Momina and the team at MDF believe that research and promotion are critical areas for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, and that is why they are currently focussing on these aspects. The project is working very closely with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) to conduct a gap analysis, to identify what is being done in terms of research and analysis, compared to what other similar global tourism departments are doing.

MDF is also working together with the SLTDA to build the capacity of their teams, enabling them to understand how to transition into a much more efficient, analytical organisation that is able to interpret data and use it to base their decisions, and also share it with the industry so that they have more insight on where to invest, what kind of products to offer, which markets to target and how to target them.

Since MDF began its engagement in Sri Lanka, it has worked on a number of programs with the private sector as well. One important initiative was new product development, where they helped identify and introduce innovative products that were missing from the market. Another initiative saw the project investing in developing information that is available to travellers, so that they can make their purchase decisions more effectively.

At present, MDF’s work with the private sector is focussed on coordination, especially with business membership organisations such as the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance (SLTA) and The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL). For example, the team is working with THASL to familiarise hotels on COVID-19 preparedness and the certification process.

Momina emphasises that the country’s informal tourism sector, which is a big section of the industry, will need to be more organised if it is to actively participate in the post COVID-19 environment because there is going to be so much more required of them in terms of being able to trace their guests, maintain records, etc. As a result, MDF is currently negotiating with companies that are planning on digitizing the SME inventory, and providing capacity building support to all types of SME tourism related businesses.

By working with the SLTA, MDF intends to support an industry association that has a similar vision to advocate for long-term sustainability of the industry, to unite different sections of the industry for a common objective, and to effectively showcase what Sri Lanka is all about to the world.

At this moment, 2021 seems like it is going to be a challenging year for tourism. Travel will resume, but at a slower pace. We are all confident that tourism will recover and grow, as it is something inherent to Sri Lanka and there are so many businesses and communities that are actively engaged in it. MDF hopes to scale up its presence in the sector in the coming months, and work closely with government and private sector entities to support the industry in the recovery process.