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Interview with Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr Nalaka Godahewa – Manila Times, Philippines
(January – 19 – 2011)
Tourism in Sri Lanka on a roll
ANYONE visiting the varied tourist attractions served up in Sri Lanka would be quite in order to think that God created the world in six days and devoted the seventh entirely to this paradise island that is suspended breathtakingly like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean. Since the end of the three-decade long secessionist conflict in 2009 that took its toll in blood and tears, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the security situation with normality quickly restored and every part of the country now open for unimpeded business. To showcase this important development globally, the Sri Lankan government has declared this year as “Refreshingly Sri Lanka, Visit Sri Lanka 2011” – though the positive message has already got around because last year the country reached its target of 600,000 visitors, with revenues earned from tourism in 2010 estimated as over $700,000 making it an important contributor to the country’s economic development. Here the newly appointed Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Dr Nalaka Godahewa – who worked for 18 years in the private sector before being co-opted to head (and which he subsequently turned around) the lumbering state insurance corporation, and then in 2010 moved to the Ministry of Economic Development to take on his current post – outlines to the Manila Times the rejuvenated road map for tourism in his country in 2011, and beyond.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka Tourism in the decade ahead?
Thirty years ago, Sri Lanka was one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. We were well ahead of most of our Asian counterparts. However, due to the impact of war tourism got stagnant. In fact, countries like the Maldives hugely benefited with tourist getting diverted from Sri Lankan beaches to the Maldives. Now that the war is over and peace has returned for good, our challenge is to once again create global awareness about the unique tourism product that Sri Lanka has on offer. Particularly we must make the world realize that Sri Lanka is not only a beautiful tourist destination but also one of the safest destinations on earth today for tourists.
What measures are you putting in place to streamline and invigorate the local tourism industry?
We want to approach tourism development in a structured manner. The starting point is creating an environment conducive for tourism which will include building capacity, improving infra-structure, introducing more innovative transport solutions, investor facilitation and raising standards in the tourism industry. Secondly, we need to focus on attracting new tourists by focusing on specific markets and also ensuring that arriving tourists experience a joyful time in Sri Lanka. This will lead to repeat arrivals and positive word of mouth. Improving the global perception about Sri Lanka is also an important long term task. Due to adverse media publicity for a long period of time people, some countries have a wrong perception about Sri Lanka. Contrary to what most people think, we are very a peaceful country which has one of the least crime records in the world. It is one of the safest destinations to travel. Four main religions have been practiced in harmony in Sri Lanka for centuries and we have never had violence related to religion. Sri Lanka is a friendly nation with smiling people. Many tourists rate the friendly smile of the people as one of the biggest attractions of repeat visits. So we need to convey these positive messages to the world. We believe in conveying our message to the world more through public relations and visiting journalists programs than advertising because the credibility is greater when a journalist writes what he or she has actually experienced.
What do you feel Sri Lanka has to offer the global tourist which makes it stand out as an attractive and desirable destination?
I would like to highlight three things that make Sri Lanka an attractive and a desirable destination for tourism. Firstly, it is an authentic destination, a country which has more than 2,500 years of history and a rich culture. Even though it is predominantly a Sinhalese Buddhist country, a variety of ethnic groups live in harmony practicing four main religions. Sri Lankan spices and gems were well known globally for thousands of years. It was a main stop over in the famous silk route connecting east and west. Secondly, it is a compact island which you can traverse from one end to the other part of the country within four to five hours and if you are flying within one hour. This is a huge plus as one can see many parts of the country during a short period of time and in fact if you spend one week in the country you can cover almost all you want. The third aspect is the diversity of our tourism product. Within this small island we offer almost anything and everything that another tourist destination can offer. The product ranges from pristine beaches, a rich heritage, the healing powers of Ayurveda medicine, the thrills of sports and adventure, the spirits of festivals, the diversity of culture, scenic beauty and the love of nature and wild life. Coming to Sri Lanka and spending one or two weeks will give you a better experience than one you could achieve by traveling to a number of destinations in the world over a long period of time. Sri Lanka according to many written accounts is a paradise on earth, a true wonder, that is why in our tagline we use the phrase “Wonder of Asia”.
What will be the main thrust of 2011 on the tourism front which has been declared by President Mahinda Rajapakse as "Visit Sri Lanka " year?
After the end of the war we have set ourselves of reaching a target of 2.5 Million tourist arrivals by 2016. To achieve this we need about 30% growth year on year. In 2010, which was the first year in our action plan we were able to achieve 46% growth which was indeed a positive start. The Government has declared the year 2011, as “Visit Sri Lanka” year. During this year we want to create awareness of the diversity of our tourism products. Therefore, each month of the year we have decided to dedicate to promote a particular tourism product. For example, January is beaches, February for sports and adventure, March for MICE tourism, April for people and culture, May for religious tourism, June for weddings and honeymoons, July for mind and body wellness, August for heritage, September for wildlife, October for community tourism, November for culinary and December for shopping and entertainment. In reality all these products are available throughout the year. But we are highlighting one of them each month trough various activities simply for the purpose of creating greater awareness.
What would you recommend as your Top Five must visit tips for a tourist coming to your country?
Someone coming to Sri Lanka should actually look for a diverse experience. It is not proper to isolate a particular attraction as best because there are so many different options for a tourist. But for tour planning purposes one can look at southern beaches of Sri Lanka, heritage sites in the cultural triangle, wild life centuries of Yala, Wilpattu or Udawalawe, the scenic beauty of the hill country and the Temple of Sacred Tooth in Kandy.