Understanding Sri Lanka Tourism’s Strategic Action Plan

 Understanding Sri Lanka Tourism’s Strategic Action Plan

A little less than a month ago, Sri Lanka Tourism unveiled a new strategic action plan for the industry for the next few years until December 2023. The document is expected to serve as a blueprint to align the industry with the new government’s vision and policies, while seeking to bridge the gaps identified through the previous strategic plan which was in use between 2017 and 2020.

We read through the fine print so that you won’t have to, and decided to summarise our insights here in layman’s terms for everyone to understand.

The previous strategic plan identified pain points of the local tourism industry and categorized them into four groups—coordination failures, market failures, institutional failures and resource failures. The previous strategic plan also identified six generic transformational themes along which corrective action could be initiated.

These transformational themes were then distilled into tactical themes that align with the government’s national policy statement. These tactical themes range from developing partnerships and positioning the island, to upgrading the legal and regulatory framework that governs Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.

Under each and every tactical theme are a set of activities and KPIs that the relevant agencies and their partners must strive to meet.

The first theme—People-centric tourism sector, lists out four key activities and several sub-activities under each.

One of the more interesting proposals contained in this section is the development of an insurance scheme for SMEs in the tourism sector. This would be a very welcome development especially in light of the current pandemic, but care must be exercised in how the insurance scheme is designed. Ideally, the insurance scheme should provide job support for employees of these SMEs and temporary liquidity support in case of unforeseen events. Another interesting proposal mentioned under this section is the development and implementation of a streamlined, paperless system for SMEs, which in our view should have been implemented a long time ago.

The second tactical theme—An efficient public service & uplift industry standards, lists out eight key activities amongst which the most interesting are the reduction of overdue payments to various suppliers involved in promotions, and the creation of a land bank that lists out all properties available for investments in the tourism sector. The long drawn out payment process of the regulator could be hampering its ability to work with innovative and creative suppliers, who tend to be SMEs that cannot stomach the drain on working capital due to the non-settlement of invoices. The creation of a land bank will make it easier to attract large scale investments into the sector and should provide a much-needed degree of transparency into the leasing process.

The third tactical theme—Technology-based tourism sector, sheds light on a few very interesting proposals which if come to fruition, should significantly enhance how Sri Lanka is perceived by the global traveller. Chief amongst them is the development of a multi-functional travel app that links all certified tourist establishments, helps with contact tracing, while also providing visitors a way to contact the tourist police, lodge a complaint, and share their location if necessary. If this app works in real life as well as it is expected to, Sri Lanka will gain a better reputation for safety compared to other destinations in the region. However, ideas are cheap (especially in this day and age) while execution is paramount. We hope the development of this app can be fast-tracked so that it is ready for use by the time Sri Lanka starts welcoming visitors again next year.

The fourth tactical theme—A safe & secure country for tourists focuses on establishing Sri Lanka as one of the safest places to travel to, and lists out a few measures such as appointing a DIG in-charge of the Tourist Police and integrating the proposed travel app with the operations of the Sri Lanka Police. Hidden in this section is also a proposal to obtain international recognition for COVID-19 preparedness, which will be very important once travel resumes.

The fifth tactical theme revolves around the legal and regulatory framework. First among the list of proposals in this section is a proposal to amalgamate all three tourism institutions under the ‘Sri Lanka Tourism’ moniker. This move is bound to be welcomed by the industry with much applause, since the sector has always felt that the progress of the industry has been hampered due to the bureaucracy involved when dealing with three separate institutions. Elsewhere in this section are proposals to amend administrative and financial regulations to allow Sri Lanka Tourism to be more independent in its decision making, and upgrade the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism & Hospitality Management (SLITHM) to be a degree-awarding institute. There are also proposals to tax Online Travel Agents (OTAs), review restrictions on obtaining a liquor license, and also to ban single use plastics. Of these, the proposal to tax OTAs is bound to be divisive, since OTAs play a valuable role in market discovery despite being unregulated. Globally, hotel chains have been making a push towards driving bookings through their own websites, while small, independent hoteliers have relied on OTAs and aggregators to survive. By choosing to tax OTAs, will Sri Lanka Tourism inadvertently end up sounding the death knell for small-time hoteliers and AirBnB hosts?

The sixth tactical theme covers sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism, and contains a handful of proposals including one to declare Yala as a ‘conservation zone’ while Sigiriya is to be declared a ‘sustainable tourism zone’.

New product development and promotion—the seventh tactical theme, appears to finally address a few things that we have personally advocated for. For one, Sri Lanka Tourism plans to set up a dedicated division for experiential travel. Proposals have been put forward to promote Sri Lanka as a destination for weddings, and also as a filming location by setting up a one-stop unit to aid filmmakers. These two proposals are very timely, for we have always believed that Sri Lanka can succeed very well in these two niches. According to the action plan, Sri Lanka Tourism hopes to host an international wedding by 2023, and make the event go viral on social media. This is a very good move and we hope Sri Lanka Tourism would play its cards right to convince a celebrity power couple (perhaps from Hollywood) to get married in Sri Lanka. In order to pull this off, it is important to operate with a ‘Go big or go home’ mindset, for that is the only way to make the global media sit up and take notice.

While the bulk of the proposals listed under the eighth tactical theme—Position and market Sri Lanka, revolve around the development of a market research roadmap and the launch of international marketing campaigns (some of which have been in the works for many years), we are more appreciative of the proposal to develop an events calendar and policy. Hosting relatively small, but globally popular events such as Formula E, Beach Tennis, Red Bull X-Fighters etc. can deliver a significant boost in publicity within a very short time and can result in a considerably high ROI. We wholeheartedly applaud this move and hope it sees the light of day as intended.

The ninth and final significant tactical theme addresses the improvement of key infrastructure and services. Amongst the proposals listed under this section are the implementation of a 5-year multiple entry tourist visa, the introduction of a master tourism investment application that satisfies the requirements of all the agencies involved, the improvement of the general railway network (especially the up-country line), and the introduction of luxury trains along the lines of the Orient Express backed by private sector investment. The first two will receive the thumbs up from us, but we have our doubts about the feasibility of the latter. Chronic underfunding and poor management have left Sri Lanka Railways a mess, and previous experiments with private sector backed rail travel such as Expo Rail have failed. A huge part of the problem lies with the fact that all the rolling stock is owned by Sri Lanka Railways (SLR), which is not exactly famous for having a high quality of service. Private sector investors will be heavily dependent on SLR in order to deliver a significant portion of the customer experience, but will have to take the blame for a lot of things that will be out of their control such as strike actions, delayed trains, breakdowns etc. Making the proposal for a private sector-backed train work would require an almost Thatcher-ish overhaul of how SLR works, or a different investment and operating structure that would hold SLR accountable very much similar to how a private firm is held accountable by its customers.  However, we don’t intend to say that this task would be impossible. Rather, making it work would require a herculean effort from everyone involved.

And that’s it! Which proposals piqued your curiosity? Let us know in the comments, and let’s get a discussion going!

Click here to download the Full Document: Sri Lanka Tourism Strategic Plan Jan 2020 -Jan 2023 http://hoteliers.global/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/1604063231711-2.pdf

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