From Crisis to Revival: A United Effort to Reinvent the Sri Lankan Tourism Industry

November 2, 2023
mins read
Roar Global

Sri Lanka has long been praised for its breathtaking landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and warm hospitality. The story of Sri Lanka's tourism industry is one of remarkable evolution. Since the 1960s, we have welcomed international travellers and tourists to experience its lush greenery, pristine beaches, and ancient sites. Over the decades, Sri Lanka's allure grew steadily, attracting travellers seeking both adventure and serenity.

However, Sri Lanka's tourism industry has navigated turbulent waters in recent years. The devastating Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the subsequent economic crisis hindered the growth of the sector. Despite these challenges, Sri Lanka has shown incredible resilience. As a collective force, the industry has stretched its boundaries, proactively adapting to shifting travel trends and embracing sustainable practices. These concerted efforts are instrumental in rebuilding Sri Lanka's image as a desirable traveller's destination.

From pristine beaches to thrilling safaris and heritage sites, Sri Lanka offers a range of experiences. Source: Roar Media and SLTA

To understand the ongoing efforts to revive the local tourism industry, we reached out to four industry experts — Nisal de Silva, Director - Digital Marketing at Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts; Rajitha Dahanayake, Founder and CEO of eMarketingEye; Chamindra Goonewardene, Head of Sales and Marketing at Resplendent Ceylon and Salindi Thalahity, Digital Marketing Manager at Teardrop Hotels, sharing their insights about the dynamics of the tourism industry and how industry players, together with communities, strive to reinstate Sri Lanka's tourism industry to its former glory.

Rise of off-the-beaten paths: a shift towards authentic travel experiences

After months of lockdown and multiple travel restrictions, travellers worldwide were eager to travel again far and wide, reigniting their love for adventure and discovery. However, what's truly inspiring is the change in travellers' mindset, especially in the post-pandemic era. Modern-day travellers no longer seek experiences merely to tick off destinations on their bucket lists; instead, they opt for mindful experiences that would enrich their lives. 

“Soon after the pandemic, there was a lot of revenge travel. People wanted to travel because they were stuck in their homes. Although revenge travel has almost come to an end, people's travel patterns have changed in terms of their purpose. In terms of length of stay, for example, earlier, people used to take multiple trips with shorter stays, so that had changed to them taking fewer trips but longer stays. In terms of why they want to travel, it has gone beyond sightseeing to have real local experiences and engage with the local communities,” says Dahanayake, who has pioneered digital marketing services in the hospitality sector.

This change has encouraged industry players like Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts to introduce tailored packages with extended stay periods and more adventurous activities such as Safari visits and hikes. 

“We see quite a change in travel patterns in the post-pandemic era. Travellers visiting our properties in Sri Lanka and Maldives are more affluent and excursion-driven,” says de Silva, whose efforts are now focused on creating more holistic approaches for travellers to enjoy Sri Lanka.  
The Southern Coastline has become a surfing hotspot among local & foreign travellers. 

This shift towards purpose-driven travel has led tourists to immerse themselves in the local culture and savour the essence of each destination. In this new era of travel, it's not just about where travellers can go, but about the profound impact and fulfilment that can be gained from their journey.

Embracing challenges as catalysts for change

In recent years, the tourism sector in Sri Lanka has emerged as a significant contributor to the local economy, ranking as the country's third-largest export earner. Notably, its contribution to the GDP stood at approximately 5% in 2018. Over just four years, from 2014 to 2018, the sector witnessed remarkable growth, with foreign exchange earnings nearly doubling from US$ 2.4 billion to an impressive US$ 4.3 billion. Concurrently, the number of tourists visiting this captivating island nation soared from 1.5 million to 2.3 million during the same period.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks, the COVID-19 pandemic and the most recent economic crisis, businesses across the country were compelled to close their doors temporarily. Furthermore, several countries swiftly issued travel advisories, cautioning their citizens against visiting Sri Lanka. Consequently, tourists departed in substantial numbers, resulting in a staggering decline in visitor arrivals. 

Despite the hardships, the Sri Lankan travel and tourism industry displayed remarkable resilience and determination. The Government and businesses in the tourism industry took various measures to reassure travellers of their safety when visiting Sri Lanka. One such outcome was the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, a private sector-driven entity founded by Malik J. Fernando with a dedicated focus on advocating for the tourism industry.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance was born from a collective need in the industry to look at a variety of issues that affect stakeholders in tourism. This includes positioning, awareness, recruitment and more. One of our key focuses has been to help address the woeful lack of marketing and positioning of Sri Lanka as an attractive and safe tourism destination. Sri Lanka has not carried out a proper marketing campaign in decades, and there has been a complete lack of consumer communication with potential travellers in our key markets. This is especially worrying given the regular issues that crop up, which require clear communication to rebuild demand after each episode,” says Goonewardene. 

To reposition Sri Lanka as a tourist hotspot, initiatives like the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance have launched numerous campaigns, particularly in the digital space.

A digital renaissance

Digital technology has significantly transformed how travellers behave and the patterns they follow. Travellers now rely extensively on digital tools and platforms to plan, book and share their journeys. Digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn are not only serving as top-of-the-funnel tools but are also being used as effective conversion tools.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of contactless solutions, from touchless check-ins to digital health passports, prioritizing safety in travel decisions. The digital sphere has not only made travel more accessible, but has also fostered a sense of community among travellers, who now seek more personalized and unique adventures. 

“During the pandemic, people became more online-savvy. As a result, they now spend more time planning, researching, and making online transactions. This shift has yielded improved outcomes for digital advertising campaigns, leading to a noticeable upsurge in digital advertising endeavours. Furthermore, there is a growing preference among travellers to make reservations directly through hotel brand websites, in contrast to the levels seen prior to the pandemic. For instance, there is a noticeable rise in the share of direct bookings in regions like the Middle East, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. This trend is encouraging hotels to boost their investments in digital advertising campaigns,” says Dahanayake.

One of the key challenges the local tourism industry faces is the limited capacity for promotional activities. 

“This is something that the Alliance identified, we launched a country website and developed an effective digital marketing campaign around it that reached almost 30m potential travellers after the economic crisis. At the country level, we are yet to launch any consumer campaign, sadly. We try to do what we can with limited resources to help reposition Sri Lanka in consumers’ minds. The Love Sri Lanka website presents compelling information about different regions in Sri Lanka and activities you can do when you visit Sri Lanka,” says Goonawardena.

Nevertheless, industry leaders have pivoted their efforts to not only showcase their own properties and hotels but also to champion Sri Lanka as a whole. 

These players have rolled out diverse campaigns and initiatives, serving as passionate advocates not just for their brands but for the enchanting destination of Sri Lanka.

“We've been trying to promote our brand while promoting Sri Lanka as a destination, aligning with other campaigns conducted by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and other notable bodies. Our digital campaigns target specific audiences with the capability and disposable income to travel, by highlighting the experiences Sri Lanka offers to encourage them to consider Sri Lanka during the dreaming and deciding stages of their process for selecting their next travel destination,” says de Silva. 
“For international travellers, our focus is more towards promoting the experiences in and around Teardrop Hotels properties. In addition to promoting just our brands, we also produced and published specific content, including blog articles and video content promoting each location of our hotels. We also hosted ten international travel and lifestyle influencers from different countries and different backgrounds. Our goal is to promote Sri Lanka as a safe and hospitable travel destination,” says Thalahity, who is more focused on promoting a more cohesive travel experience through Teardrop Hotels.  

Community-Centred and Community-Driven Efforts

Sri Lanka's reputation as a hospitable nation is, without a doubt, one of its most compelling attributes. This innate kindness towards visitors transcends generations and has played a pivotal role in establishing the country as a sought-after tourist destination. Whether it's the inviting smiles of local hosts, the sharing of traditional cuisines, or the willingness to go above and beyond to ensure a memorable stay, Sri Lankans have long exemplified the true meaning of hospitality. This exceptional hospitality not only fosters authentic cultural exchanges but also creates a sense of belonging for travellers, turning their visits into unforgettable journeys. 

“Unscripted moments of warmth and hospitality by Sri Lankans across the country creates a rich tourism product, which is globally competitive. The age-old anecdote of being invited for a cup of tea at home is just one aspect of what those arriving in Sri Lanka can expect to experience. The connection that our people can provide is something extremely unique, and these memories are what guests leaving Sri Lanka take home with them. 

“The beauty of tourism is that it is such a trickle-down industry. Whatever you spend, whether you’re staying at a luxury resort or whether you’re staying in an Airbnb, gets carried down the supply chain, enhancing the lives of over one million Sri Lankans,” says Goonawardena 
Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Care Initiative by Teardrop Hotels focuses on supporting women to achieve financial independence

While challenges persist, the Sri Lankan Government, businesses, brands and local communities are moving the local travel and tourism industry forward. As travellers slowly regain confidence in exploring the world, Sri Lanka is poised to reassert itself as a desirable tourist destination — one that not only enchants with its natural beauty but also captivates with its warm-hearted people and rich heritage. 

Learn how businesses in the South Coast of Sri Lanka are recovering from the economic crisis in this video produced by Roar Media and the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance as part of a campaign to promote Sri Lanka as a safe travel destination.