360-degree campaign, diving destination launch: Sri Lanka lays recovery roadmap for tourism

A two-phase mega campaign starting in early August and the promotion of hot air ballooning over pristine nature are among the key steps being taken by Sri Lanka to woo tourists from India and other nations in a bid to revive tourism in the cash-strapped country.

Describing his country a “resilient nation” and a “land of opportunities”, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Tourism and Lands Harin Fernando urged more Indians to travel and explore the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” as a 365-day destination that offers everything from adventure to beaches and scuba diving to cultural heritage in one capsule.
According to data shared by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), the country is targeting about 1.55 million foreign tourists arrivals by the end of this year, with a forecast of the figures rising to 2.5 million by 2024 and an aim of 4 million tourists by 2030.

Chalaka Gajabahu, the chairman of SLTPB, said that as the island nations lay the roadmap for recovery and rejuvenation of the tourism sector, “India is, and will for a long time, remain our number one market”.

India is a country with over a billion people and one of the strongest middle-class populations in the world.

Definitely, one of Sri Lanka’s key markets, followed by China, which is a very similar market, he said.

Sri Lanka earlier in July played host to the 67th annual convention of the TAAI (Travel Agents Association of India) with President Ranil Wickremesinghe being the chief guest at its opening ceremony in Colombo.

Wickremesinghe will travel to India on an official visit from July 20-21 to further advance and consolidate the long-standing bilateral relations between the two countries.

Fernando, at a dinner reception held on the second day of the TAAI convention here, told a gathering of nearly 600 delegates, “India hamare dil ke paas hai” (India is close to our heart).

“India and Sri Lanka, we are connected in more ways than one. Sethusamudram is a good example,” he added.

“We both have shared history and heritage going back to thousands of years. We look alike, have similar food, dance...a long way, we can go together. Thank you for supporting Sri Lanka, it’s your home away from home,” the tourism minister said.

He shared that the last good year for Sri Lanka in terms of tourism was in 2018 when it saw the arrival of 2.3 million foreign tourists.

In 2022, international tourist arrival figures stood at 719,978 -- a 270.2 per cent increase compared to the 194,495 tourists who visited in 2021, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).

“We have achieved about 600,000 by June 30 this year in terms of the arrival of tourists. Our last year’s figure was about 7,20,000. So, we are almost achieving our target in just six months, and our target is 1.55 million (for 2023), but we are confident that we can reach there, it’s a bit of an ambitious figure,” Gajabahu, the SLTPB chairman, had said in an interaction during the convention.

“The 2018 figure was the highest, 2.3 million, so imagine if we can get to 2 million, it’s a massive recovery,” he added.

In terms of recovery for tourism, it is very clear, without a proper campaign one can’t take the vision forward. So, a little bit that was done earlier, starting with India, then China, then in London, followed by Germany, Middle East, where travel roadshows were done, and “the numbers are coming in”, the SLTPB chairman said.

The other key markets for Sri Lanka include France, Australia, Scandinavian nations, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

“We are going to look at these key 9-10 markets, India being number one. There will be a two-month campaign starting in early August or late July, to rejuvenate and revive Sri Lanka (tourism). It will be 100 per cent through PR and social media with a 360-degree approach,” Gajabahu said.

In phase one, the focus will be on informing travellers that Sri Lanka is safe and ready to welcome visitors, a step that will also seek to nullify the “negative publicity”, officials said.

“After 15 years, we are going to come up with our first 360-degree campaign. Not a category-target campaign, but a full force campaign.. targeting 12 key markets, India is going to be our biggest market, and our biggest budget will be spent on India, followed by China,” Gajabahu added.

“In September and October, we are going to come up with thematic campaigns, which is about what Sri Lanka is, and what it stands for. A lot of people still think we are just sun and sea. We are an island. We are all in one capsule, minus the snow,” the SLTPB chairman said.

Phase two will involve inspiring global campaigns on three pillars -- compact, diversity and authenticity.

Gajabahu cited the example of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign of India’s Ministry of Tourism, which was formed two decades ago, saying, first, the need is to create “a mother brand of Sri Lanka”.

‘Incredible India’, “is a DNA, and not just a tagline”, and what a successful brand it is, he said. “So, that is our task, to ‘create the blueprint, so it won’t change’,” he asserted, adding that governments change, chairman changes, minister changes, but the brand should stay.

“So, wait till August, you will see the campaign come out, and the main campaign in September and October,” an excited Gajabahu said.

Fernando said that as part of the efforts to revive tourism in the cash-strapped nation, a number of new projects were on the anvil.

“In October, we are launching Sri Lanka as a diving destination. There are more than 148 shipwrecks around Sri Lanka. We are starting a skydiving school. We are starting ballooning, we have already four hot air balloons, and we are going to promote it, you can go to Yalla, and have an aerial view of the wild, so there is so much of high-end tourism that can be done,” he said.

In his address, he also added that yacht parks will be starting from places like Galle and Colombo.

He spoke about chartered flights and an ITC hotel coming up soon in Colombo.

Fernando said the Galle Literary Festival is coming up that will take place some days before the Jaipur Literature Festival, and Sri Lanka is expecting to attract those foreigners too who will visit India for the Jaipur Literary Festival.

The debt-ridden nation is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from the British in 1948, due to a shortage of foreign exchange reserves.

The tourism sector is the main source of foreign exchange earnings for cash-strapped Sri Lanka.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 severely crippled the tourism sector and was one of the major reasons for Sri Lanka’s economic travails apart from the 2019 Easter bombings that had already impacted inbound tourism in Sri Lanka.

The island nation is now making comprehensive efforts to recover from the crisis and rebuild the economy, the SLTPB said, asserting that it was “ready to conquer any challenge” and “conquer the crisis”.

Cricket legend and the brand ambassador of Sri Lanka Tourism, Sanath Jayasuriya, in an interview with PTI earlier this month had said that to forge the way ahead in the field of tourism, it will take a good mix of both “pinch-hitting” and “long-haul innings”.

Both Fernando and Gajabahu cited cricket analogy to express their optimism on the road to recovery and said, the Asia Cup matches starting in September will “draw in tourists too”.

“Nine matches of the Asia Cup will be played in Sri Lanka, including two India vs Pak matches. It’s a great opportunity to promote our destinations,” Gajabahu said.

Fernando said that Sri Lanka is promoting tourism but with its own sense of identity.

“We are not Singapore, we are not Bangkok, we are not Malaysia, we are not Vietnam, we are Sri Lanka. We have our own identity, and we like to play hard,” the Sri Lankan tourism minister said.