Shining the Light on Sri Lanka’s Wellness Tourism Industry – A Chat with Trevor Reckerman

14th September, 2020 News and Updates,Opinion Pieces

Sri Lanka’s Wellness Tourism sector has been given a boost in recent years, with Wellness Tourism being prioritised as a focus sector of the Export Development Board’s (EDB) National Export Strategy (NES). The EDB has recognised the sector’s potential to become a top income earner for the country, and as a result has undertaken a number of initiatives to support the industry.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance strongly supports the NES developed by the EDB and welcomes an evidence-based approach to the development of the Wellness Tourism industry in Sri Lanka. The Alliance is keen to work alongside the country’s Tourism Authority and all other stakeholders to propel the Wellness Tourism industry forward for the benefit of the overall tourism sector. The Alliance believes that product development, regulation and marketing in the Wellness Tourism industry need to be developed in consultation with all stakeholders, be it government or private sector.

In a move to further establish Wellness Tourism in the country, the Sri Lanka Wellness Tourism Association (SLWTA) was formed earlier this year with the support of the EDB. The Association, which consists of over 50 organisations engaged in Wellness Tourism activities such as Ayurveda, yoga and meditation, is expected to represent the industry’s interests with the Government, while also helping to develop the sector. The SLWTA’s members have been drawn from the Association of Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes (APHNH), Ayurveda establishments registered with the Department of Ayurveda and Sri Lanka Tourism, Wellness Tourism companies registered with Sri Lanka Tourism and Wellness Tourism professional consultants. The primary objective of the SLWTA is to promote and develop Wellness Tourism as a preferred tourism sector in the country.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance had the opportunity to speak to the President of the SLWTA, Trevor Reckerman, for some insights on the country’s Wellness Tourism sector and what steps need to be taken to support and promote wellness travel to Sri Lanka.

Trevor Reckerman has run many diverse businesses over a half a century of diligence both in Sri Lanka and overseas. At heart, he remains a marketing and communications professional and has assumed senior managerial roles at Nestle, Mobil Lubricant, Hayleys, Jetwing and Expolanka, prior to setting up Talisman Enterprises, a boutique consultancy which he currently runs.
Below is an excerpt from the discussion with Trevor.

Q: Do you see an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s wellness offering in this COVID-19 period?

A: Absolutely! Especially among the more senior population, Sri Lanka can be marketed as a destination which is relatively safe and where these travel groups can safely take a long-stay holiday while their countries recover from the aftermath of the pandemic.

I believe that the COVID-19 entry safeguards implemented by local health authorities will not pose a major problem to these visitors if the benefits and facilities can be effectively communicated to them through specialist wellness travel agents and advisories.

Q: Does Sri Lanka’s wellness industry have a strategy for the post-COVID travel revival?

A: Yes, we do, but it may not be ready in time unless we set up essential mechanisms as a matter of expediency. Sri Lanka has just concluded a two year-long study by Linser Hospitality Institute in Austria, which examined the German speaking and Scandinavian markets closely. This study was initiated by the EDB under the National Export Strategy (NES) mandate, but has now been brought under the direct purview of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Authority (SLTDA and SLTPB).

Now, the Tourism Authority must set up a dedicated division to develop what is a relatively new segment that they are undertaking at short notice. Along with industry leaders focusing on Wellness Tourism, the Tourism Authority must put together a short-term plan, but maintain a long-term perspective, as there is a major need for capacity building in this sector.

The Ayurveda Department has been slow in developing a legislative framework which is a sorely needed regulatory requirement in order to improve the qualitative aspects of indigenous wellness best represented by Ayurveda and Hela Wedakama. It is these twin elements that clearly differentiate the Sri Lankan Wellness brand.

Sri Lanka Tourism must strive to bring all stakeholders together in a cohesive masterplan that efficiently utilizes the current infrastructure starting from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in the immediate future, but not lose sight of the major work ahead. The private wellness sector needs to engage with the Tourism Authority, so that together we can make Sri Lanka one of the world’s most attractive wellness destinations.

Q: In your opinion, what is the edge Sri Lanka has when it comes to wellness travel?

A: I believe that it is Sri Lanka’s biodiversity which stands out from other competitive and more developed destinations at present. Pattaya, Koh Samui (Thailand), Bali (Indonesia) and Kerala (India) are well patronized wellness hot-spots, but Sri Lanka enjoys some of the best combinations worldwide for a broader wellness canvass.

The modern Western (European) wellness traveller is swayed by lifestyle implications. Social loneliness, work and occupational stress, sleep disorders and weight imbalances all add up to multiple challenges impacting these generational groups. Most of them are educated, financially stable and independent in nature. They are looking to spend wisely and are therefore looking for authentic, and even life-changing experiences.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist spiritual lineage and rich Ayurveda heritage, combined with its glittering coastline, pristine hills, ancient historical monuments and an abundance of wildlife offers a range of experiences that could be coupled with wellness packages. Yoga, Meditation, and Hela Wedakama, for the more discerning wellness traveller, are all available within a compact island landscape.

Q: What do you think is the profile of the wellness traveller that considers Sri Lanka as a destination?

A: I don’t think this profiling is finite. Right now, the wellness traveller is perceived as the backpacker with a low spending threshold. The more serious wellness traveller maybe the elderly with health issues that require curative treatment, while the mainstream is composed of casual holiday travellers who enjoy a spa experience as an indulgence during their holiday.

So, the challenge is to create a profiling that offers an attractive economic benefit to the wellness industry as a whole. The Linser Study outlines some psychographic profiles which will be primary elements of the target groups we must address. This will also mean that we must develop the products that will meet with the expectations of these groups.

Q: Has this profile changed over the past decade?

A: My observation is that it has not changed, but it is surely changing, driven by the needs and propensities of the present day traveller. There are in fact references to millennials in the study, which indicates a growing population of younger wellness travellers!

These are purpose driven individuals. Some of them travel in groups because they are like minded, share similar experiences or seek the same outcomes from the wellness journey. They are not necessarily driven by costs, but by purpose – especially authentic soul stirring experiences. They demand consistent quality and promise of delivery.

Q: Sri Lanka has not traditionally positioned itself as a wellness destination. What should we do to change that?

A: In retrospect, it appears that it is something we have overlooked without carefully articulating the positioning of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination, let alone a wellness destination.

In my view, we need to relook at the product and the landscape it encompasses. We need to make a careful study of all the current actors and classify them; from the upmarket luxury hotels to the most minimalist ashrams. We need to certify all this under strict criteria and standards.

Once this product upgrade takes place (it will not happen overnight), we need to articulate a sub-brand under the national umbrella brand – So Sri Lanka. Even a standalone brand is possible, but it must blend and not stand in conflict with a mainstream brand. From there, it’s down to targeted communication and close partnerships with International Wellness Travel Operators.

Once a brand name and design are decided, we must be bold to maintain, invest and grow it.

Q: Do you think Sri Lanka’s Wellness Tourism operators are paying attention to understanding consumer demand and developing products to cater to that?

A: I sense that they are beginning too. The notion that we know everything is sad, to say the least. We must never lose sight of the feeder markets and their trends. Our own small businesses are not ideally the best reference standard.

The competitive destination markets give us a glimpse of what’s out there. We can differentiate, but we must deliver all the time. We must have an intimate knowledge of the source markets. These are the people we are catering to, not our egos or fantasies!

There is also an opportunity for the Western Medical Practitioners to partner with the Indigenous Sector in many strategic areas of treatment; Post-Operative Care for example. So, a constant watch on the markets and their evolution will help us to establish a reliable Wellness destination and become a leader in our own right.

Q: What are the key challenges the Wellness Tourism industry is facing here in Sri Lanka?

A: The country situation matters greatly. With a strong government in place and emphasis on a secure environment, the basics seem to be attended to. The next is country access via good and economic airline connections to Colombo, an efficient and enjoyable BIA reception of visitors, quick and convenient transfers to locations (internal flights and highway – road networks), and well-regulated operators.

Q: Any advice for our members who operate in the wellness space?

A: Stay united and focused, even while you compete for space and customers! The formation of the Sri Lanka Wellness Tourism Association (SLWTA) under the patronage of the EDB is a step in that direction. It is still early days, but the recent webinar series we conducted brought together local and international experts who are eager to collaborate. We will provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, the proliferation of information, cooperation with government, notably the national Tourism Authority.

My belief is that Wellness Tourism has been under exposed, so tourism operators and the Tourism Authority need to invest in this category, especially in marketing the country as a wellness destination. Those of us within the industry need to focus on developing the right products and offerings that cater to the interests and needs of wellness travellers, rather than merely trying to push our perception of what wellness is to consumers. Furthermore, we need to pay more attention to the quality of wellness operations, introduce and enforce a standard, so that the entire sector doesn’t suffer because of a few subpar operations. A constant watch on the Regulatory Framework is key in order to dispel unhealthy and illegal practices.

Q: What does success look like for the Sri Lanka Wellness Tourism Association and what are the short-term, medium-term and long-term goals of the Association?

A: COVID has brought health and wellbeing issues to the surface like never before. Therefore, it is the primary objective of the SLWTA to promote and help develop all initiatives taken by the government, Tourism Authority and the private sector to establish Wellness Tourism as a preferred tourism sector in the country.
Two fundamental reasons for this strategy, is that Sri Lanka is a well-endowed natural destination for Wellness in all its multifarious forms and is commercially the most attractive because of its higher yield per capita.

Infrastructure and capacity improvements on a large scale are two key ingredients that will be vital in order to pursue these goals.

Q: How can the Alliance support the SLWTA to achieve these goals?

A: The Alliance can work hand on glove with SLWTA on the communication front to propagate the ethos that we are pushing for. Quality and a well-positioned brand position will be critical. This is almost a green-field concept in spite of pundits who claim that we have a marvelous product on the ground here. Ayurveda must be carefully advocated without compromising its powerful heritage values, but it must be also brought to a point that meets with modern day expectations, from the source markets. For starters, I think it would be great if the Alliance can work with us to propagate these beliefs.