Yes, we are a beautiful country with beautiful, friendly, hospitable smiling people. Yes, we have great beaches, cultural sights, wild life, hills and mountains and many more attractions within a few of hours of travel. So yes, tourists should be lining up to visit Sri Lanka. Oh I almost forgot to mention the lovely hotels and its services that can be added to the list of goodies we have on offer. With all this and more, why are we falling short of our arrival targets, I ask myself. We were at the top of the choice set in the region some years back. So what’s going on now? Where are we lagging behind? In addition to the lack of a macro strategy for Tourism, continuous improvement or more specifically, the Keizan principle is what I see lacking in upping our game.
I have been visiting some neighboring countries both in South Asia and East Asia and been keenly observing the kind of challenges we are faced with. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few important aspects worthy of consideration.
Primarily, I see some of our top end hotels looking ‘tired’. They somehow don’t look as grand and ‘spick and span’ as their equals in the region. When you experience the extremely fresh and crisp ambience in most of these top end hotels in the neighboring countries, I am saddened that ours don’t quite match up. Some of our flag ships have aged. It is not only the city hotels, but even our resorts have lost its luster. I ask myself why we continue to look this way; is it due to an affordability issue or because we don’t think we need a continuous face lift?
I have been concerned about our service standards too. We don’t have to look far. Indian hospitality was at a low ebb a few years ago, but they have simply ‘upped’ the game to unbelievable heights. Even Chennai, a place we don’t usually pay too much attention to, has revamped their service delivery to very high standards. Overall, Indian hospitality which was never considered great has suddenly under gone a paradigm shift. Against this kind of competition, ours sadly does not seem to progress to keep up with the ‘world traveler expectation’. Of course when a Westerner who has never left his country comes to the East, is simply swept off his feet with Asian hospitality and charm. But we know we can do better in this department with much more focused training and diligence. The satisfaction surveys done at most local hotels seem simply a tick in the box. I have experimented this; made comments to management both here and abroad, watched and waited for a response to no avail. But not so from our neighboring countries. The GM, no less, responds post haste. Maybe we need to revisit our service standards objectively, benchmarking competitive service deliveries.
Product options offered at each property is another area we could improve on. Today’s traveler is so discerning and exacting; he looks for excellence in the personalized choices he makes, almost needing a tailor-made solution. Our neighbor in the Maldives has mastered the art of providing the maximum experience in the sea, sun and fun department with their very limited offer as a country, but excelling in their product and service delivery.
It’s about time we took serious note of positioning and differentiating. If as a country we are selling all things to all people since they don’t seem to know any better, may be individual properties can offer more focused services. It was heartening to see a differentiating matrix developed by Keells Hotels for their Chaaya brand. They seem totally focused with their unique positioning. Chaaya has very specifically positioned itself to the ‘South Indian Middle income traveler’ and their whole marketing strategy was going to be developed based on this differentiator. This is truly a breath of fresh air! I completely endorse that focused marketing is definitely the way forward if we are to attract different tourist segments to a country with an abundance of offers.
Upping the game whole heartedly on the ancillary services such as tour guide services, tourist car drivers and even trishaw drivers is so important if the ‘Visit Sri Lanka’ experience is to be taken to another level completely. One could take a leaf from Bangkok and learn how they use the taxi drivers as a means of promoting the country and its services. This is the depth to what a country goes to develop an industry which is crucial to the economy.
Reversing the mind set of ‘exploitation of tourists’ is one other important factor we need to address. Since bad news spreads faster than good, we should always be mindful that one exploited tourist is more dangerous than hundred happy ones. With social media being the greatest influencer, managing reputation becomes crucial. I often wonder if our colleagues in the hospitality industry are really up to this game of managing social media with regards their individual businesses. It’s not just about having a snazzy website, but the prompt and personal interaction that is key in today’s social media space. I have sent mails to local websites and waited for days with no response!
Politicizing and militarizing of wild life parks will not help in our endeavor at all. Nature’s gift of the wild we have in abundance in our beautiful island is being blatantly destroyed by unplanned and short sighted park management processes. In addition, it is now also being politicized! This will only quicken the destruction of wildlife and in turn affect wildlife tourism. With carefully planned nature tourism being promoted elsewhere, it will be just a matter of time when we will completely lose the plot and be left out of the race.
These few thoughts are just the tip of the ice burg that needs re- imagining if we are to up our game to make this a ‘worthy paradise island’ that tourist will line up to visit. Are we up to the challenge is my burning question?