Big Idea: Tap Niche Tourism in Sri Lanka

Making the most of speciality tourism in Sri Lanka requires collaboration, coordination and creativity, argues Yasas Hewage in the first of our Big Ideas.

The gap in vocational and technical skills is one hurdle in attracting world class events to Sri Lanka. However, tourists attending such events tend to spend more and stay longer.

The average daily spend of visitors for IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo was over $400, nearly double the Tourism Strategic Plan’s 2020 goal.

Niche tourism in Sri Lanka is still relatively untapped.  “People come to see rather than do things. On that basis, there are so many opportunities for niche markets to build the active side of tourism: the do side.”

This is the opinion of Yasas Hewage, who through Pro-Am Serendib (Pvt) Ltd. and together with his partners, successfully brought the internationally acclaimed IRONMAN 70.3 event to Sri Lanka in February 2018.

Hewage Wants people across the industry to recognize the potential and work together to maximize the opportunities. “If you’ve got the technical capabilities and are willing to build the team up and build into those segments then niche markets is where the opportunity is.”

Pro-Am Serendib conducted a data survey on the impact of the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 event in conjunction with KANTAR LMRB. The results were striking.

The average spend of IRONMAN visitors was $400+ per day, well above the TSP 2020 goal of $210.

Over 880 participants were accompanied by over 2,300 supporters, more than 70% of whom were first-time visitors to the country.

No less important is the increased visibility for Sri Lanka as a destination of choice, created through association with a global brand like IRONMAN. Its supporters are a passionate community, and word-of-mouth recommendations have a powerful impact. The event received a 91.5% satisfaction rating, the highest in Asia and 4% above the global average.

“Niche market opportunities are significant, and the impact they could have on the local economy is multi-fold,” Hewage states. “When this type of tourist comes, they will stay longer and spend more too.”

As a year-round destination with diverse topography, the climate of Sri Lanka may lend itself perfectly to sports tourism; yet, according to 2016 figures, it makes up less than 1% of overall visitors. Of this, complex endurance events like IRONMAN make up only a micro-slice.

But niche tourism in Sri Lanka is by no means restricted to the sports sector. Nor does niche have to mean small. Gastronomy, photography, heritage, eco, wildlife, wine and special events are all examples of niche markets.

In the case of special events, like IRONMAN 70.3, the economic impact is not limited to the organisers and the immediate hosts, as Hewage is keen to point out. “Events of this nature have the absolute potential to go down the value chain,” and the potential upsides are huge.

The key is to create connectivity and maximize on the opportunities.

A competitor finishing the Ironman Sri Lanka race


Creating the wider eco-system

Hewage passionately believes that developing the surrounding eco-system of a special event can create a platform where everyone can benefit.

Creating awareness is a crucial part of this.

Reception from hotel partners for the inaugural event in 2018 was limited. As it was a new event, people were wary of getting involved in the unknown.

For 2019, they are partnered with almost all five star hotels in the city.

Hewage gives credit for this to the generosity of the first group of partners who were bold enough to see the opportunity. “They bought into the concept of the event… and now everyone understands the potential, so it’s in everyone’s benefit to be a part of it.”

The value dispersal opportunities do not stop at accommodation. Several thousand friends and family stay in Colombo for the duration of the event. This creates significant opportunities for the food & beverage and retail sectors in bringing in foreign exchange.

Colombo will have the luxury of a captive audience, something it rarely receives; but to really capitalise on this, “Colombo needs to put on a show”.

Street events, jazz festivals and food fiestas are just some of the ideas Hewage hopes will accompany the next IRONMAN 70.3 in 2019.

The opportunities for niche tourism in Sri Lanka are also not limited to Colombo.

There should also be an active push from tour operators and hoteliers to capitalise on these event visitors and turn a short visit to Colombo into a longer holiday around the country.

Collaborative partnerships with travel agents and tour operators are an obvious next step. However, the generic sun, sea and sand package will not suffice here. The products need to be targeted at and tailored to the niche market.

In the example of sports tourists, some will be looking to rest and recuperate with friends and family, while others get straight back into training for their next event.

With carefully designed products and targeted advertising starting well before an event, a short trip to the city can be cultivated into a long holiday with family and friends.

Fundamentally, the effectiveness of the trickle-down effect depends on the organiser’s outlook. “If you do a niche event purely from a profit point of view, then you won’t look beyond meeting your practical requirements,” Hewage points out.

However, if you’re looking to build something sustainable for the long term, “then you start making it different”. By choosing to create a ‘made in Sri Lanka’ brand, you have to make bringing in the locals a priority right from the inception.


Breakdown of the statistics for Ironman 70.3

Looking local

“If you want an authentic product, then you have to put the country into it,” Hewage states. By identifying what we in Sri Lanka are good at, we can blend it into everything we do. That is what is going to make the difference from what other destinations can offer.

To put Sri Lanka at the heart and soul of the event was a decision taken early on for the IRONMAN 70.3 event. As a result, Hewage believes “the world got a glimpse of Sri Lanka in a very different light”.

The finisher medals, which people cherish as a testament to their achievement, would have been cheaper made in China, but a deliberate call was made to use a local producer. The resulting medal, made of wood, is unique within IRONMAN events.

The athletes’ bags, another very important merchandising piece, were made by a local handloom company that engages the industry at the grassroots level.

While it may have been simpler to hire in expert companies from abroad, the ‘look local’ approach extended to investing in the skills and knowledge of the technical officials and volunteers.

Niche tourism, and events in particular, requires that people are up-skilled to meet the exacting requirements. “Nobody had experienced this magnitude [of event] before.” To overcome this, key individuals, including the judges, mechanics and team leaders, were joined by police representatives and taken to experience the IRONMAN in Malaysia.

“Our chief bike mechanic had never flown before,” Hewage remarks. After visiting Malaysia, he locally trained the mechanics and handled the flow of 400 bikes at the Sri Lankan event.

The skills learnt and experience gained will add value not just at the next IRONMAN 70.3 event, but throughout their careers.

“Next year, they will be coming with a lot more confidence.”

Recognising this need to up-skill, particularly in technical areas, will be a key factor in attracting more world-class events to Sri Lanka. Global franchises have to be confident that Sri Lanka can handle the technical nature of large scale events before they will commit to a new location.

The gap in vocational skills is a critical issue that Hewage is trying to address in one small way at his Spinner Cafe, where young people from rural villages are invited for training sessions to learn about the role of a bike mechanic. “Our role is to try and open their minds by giving them exposure.” Once they know what the possibilities are, there’s potential that they will decide to take this on and make a career out of it.

So where does this leave us?

With a call to action.

To make the most of niche tourism in Sri Lanka, and by investing in people, lay the foundations for new opportunities to appear on the horizon.

With clever and meaningful partnerships, single events can become platforms to showcase the country and provide opportunities for everyone.

As far as IRONMAN 70.3 2019 is concerned, the doors are open – “Any company looking to do something innovative and relevant can contact us. We will do the technical part. We need the country to build on that.”

Hospitality Insider Issue 4