Sri Lanka Tourism supremo Kishu Gomes is upbeat about the industry’s prospects
Tourism is a relatively sensitive industry, more easily affected than others by the vagaries of climate and world economy. It is particularly vulnerable to acts of war and to natural disasters. So, while the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 21 April left all industries and businesses reeling, the tourist trade was among the worst affected. Profit and job losses of unprecedented magnitude were feared. Tourist arrivals plunged in April and May. In the light of the worrying news, OSL – THE Investment Magazine spoke to Kishu Gomes, the chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), on the state of tourism in the aftermath of the attacks.
Formerly Managing Director/CEO (for 22 years) of Chevron Lubricants Lanka PLC, Gomes, who holds an MBA from the University of Leicester and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, accepted the post in order to serve the country. Brought in as a breath of private sector air into a public sector institution, he is directing Tourism Sri Lanka’s global brand-rebuilding efforts.
Before the attacks, Sri Lanka had been awarded the world’s best travel destination 2019 accolade by the publishers of the influential Lonely Planet guidebook, and Asia’s top destination 2019 by an expert panel of five of the best-renowned travel bloggers and influencers, organised by the leading Travel Lemming website. The goodwill built up might well have dissipated as a result of the attacks.
According to Gomes, the fears were worse than reality, as the market proved more resilient than expected. “We worried we might not be able to stand up in two years. We had a sharp decline during the month of May. Last May, compared to previous year’s May, was a 70% drop. We still had 30% of the tourists coming, despite it being a major calamity. But by June we were able to recover significantly. In June, we grew the industry by 70%, on a month by month basis. To share the specific numbers, in the month of May we had 1,300 tourists on a daily basis, which went up to 2,300 in June. Now that travel advisories have been softened by 14 large countries, including all the target markets other than US and Russia, we expect to keep growing these numbers and keep the momentum we had prior to the attack.”
Gomes went on to explain that SLTPB was taking many measures to attract tourists back, to overcome negative sentiment about Sri Lanka. “We are working with a global advertising agency to do a campaign covering all the target markets for 6 months. We are also running a PR campaign together with our global PR agency to further change the sentiments towards Sri Lanka to be positive. Tourism being a very competitive industry, for us to have a competitive edge, we need to continue to tell the world that Sri Lanka is a safe place now and after the incident on the 21st, we’ve had not any issue in the country.”
Word of mouth, and recommendations by visitors who have experienced the island play a large part in building the brand. So he was pleased that many of the tourists, who had visited Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the attacks, were voicing how they enjoyed their stay on social media. “Anyone who came here after the 21st found the environment to be safe. These messages get out in the world and will help us to try and recover faster than ever before. The tourists who have come here have found life to be very normal. They have enjoyed their stay. Given that prices have fallen and so many offers being presented to the world by stakeholders, there will be more and more tourists looking at Sri Lanka.”
Commenting about the security measures now in place, such as the scanners and metal detectors, Gomes said that they were important assurances of safety to tourists. “Technically, there is no threat now. But when these things are in place, it gives confidence to the tourists. They know we’re concerned about their security. I think it is a positive. Look at other countries of the world. These have been part of their life. It has now come to Sri Lanka as well. Tourists seeing that would be convinced we have taken the right measures to ensure that Sri Lanka will not have to face another attack. I think it is a big positive.”
When asked about what he had to say to potential investors in the Sri Lankan market, Gomes replied “the investors surely had serious concerns about the ability to bounce back fast. We have proven that we are a very resilient market. Safety is fully restored. The military has made a very bold statement saying no terrorist group will be able to have another co-ordinated attack in Sri Lanka. With that, there is confidence being built.”
“Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The size of global tourism industry is 8.8 trillion dollars per annum. It grows more than 4%. With us being able to restore normality and create a safe environment, and travel advisories being lifted, in a few months’ time, we will certainly get the numbers. Apart from promotional activities I mentioned, we have an integrated marketing communication strategy that we are executing across all target markets. With that I’m positive that we will recover fast.”
In parting, Gomes had this message to the world industry. “I must tell the entire world that this is global terrorism. Where there is tourism, there is terrorism as well. To counter global terrorism, we need to stand together. All tourism destinations have to come together against global terrorism. It’s not just making Sri Lanka safe, it’s about creating the entire world and all tourism destinations safe. So my request to the entire world is to let us stand together against terrorism to make the world safe for the entire world population on this beautiful planet.”