“The world is changing so fast that what we (as a country) have been doing is not relevant anymore” says Vickum Nawagamuwage, CEO/Founder of Santani Wellness Resort & Spa. If Sri Lanka wants to compete on the global stage, it needs to re-position its marketing strategy. “We need to go back and understand what’s happening around us, understand the benchmarks, understand the products and understand how we can do better.”
“During the 30 years [of war], nothing happened in the country,” says Vickum. “There was a vacuum”, and then in 2009, the tourism sector kicked off again, but “we essentially had to start from where we stopped in ’82”.
“We defaulted back to the sun, sea and sand concept,” with beach tourism destinations such as Passikudah and Kalpitiya, but “what tourists needed in ’82 was not what they are looking for in ’09”. The overall competitive landscape had changed completely.
Tourism is a notoriously fast-paced industry, and during this period the rest of the world had not stood still. Regional destinations like the Maldives, Singapore, Langkawi and Bali had developed at a rapid pace, leaving Sri Lanka far behind. Today, visitor numbers remain far lower than in countries with similar offerings. In 2017, Thailand welcomed over 35 million visitors and Cambodia 5.6 million.
Know your market
The first step is to understand global and market trends in tourism advises Vickum. Once you have this, you can identify areas within Sri Lanka’s asset base where products can be created to fulfill those demands. It’s the age-old adage of supply and demand: what do people want, and how can Sri Lanka provide it for them.
With a background in strategy consulting, knowing the market is something Vickum is an expert in. Santani was launched with clear brand positioning and already accrued an impressive collection of international awards and recognition by just its second year of operation.
In 2014, when Vickum was just starting out with the Santani project, JWT Advertising identified mindfulness as a key trend to watch in its annual Future 100 report. “There was a need in the world at that time, related to tourism, about seeking out places where people can just relax,” Vickum says. Of the three factors in wellness – mindfulness (Buddhism), serenity, and healing (Ayurveda) – Sri Lanka has them all; “We had everything to create a wellness product.”
The multiple trends in tourism should be broken down into sub-products and in turn, further analysed against visitor markets. “As an industry, we need to identify where they are coming from and what they are coming for.” This is the first step in creating a targeted strategy.
Thailand case study
As a tropical country with many similarities to Sri Lanka, the main products Thailand offers tourists can be categorised as beach, cultural/ancient cities, wildlife, nightlife and shopping. “If you look at these sub-products, excluding the nightlife, we have the same thing,” says Vickum, and in many ways, “we are a thousand times better.”
How is it then that Thailand is attracting over 35 million tourists per year when Sri Lanka is hitting only 2.1 million, with a goal of 4 million by 2020?
Of the top ten country markets for Thailand, only five are also in the top ten for Sri Lanka. Excluding Laos, due to geographical proximity, this leaves 4 prime countries that Sri Lanka can be targeting. Sri Lanka receives less than 1% of the tourists from Korea that Thailand receives. Over 1.5 million Japanese are visiting Thailand every year, yet only 45,000 chose to come to Sri Lanka.
With similar products, as an industry, Sri Lanka needs to understand why these visitors are not also in the top ten for Sri Lanka. We need to ask, what do Koreans do in Thailand? Why are they choosing Thailand as a destination? Once we know the answers to these questions, we can curate new products that will cater to those markets and bring those tourists here.
A second approach is to look at the top ten countries by visitor numbers to Sri Lanka and compare that with Thailand. These are our existing visitors and the low hanging fruit. Here, rather than creating a product, we know that there is already an attraction to the country. We need to ask, what can we do to increase the numbers, both by expanding the existing market and by offering products that encourage repeat visitors?
For India, Sri Lanka’s number one source market, the figures are healthier, but still only 27% of the number to Thailand. As a closer destination, increasing visitor numbers from India could be an easy win.
“Product development is understanding where the demand is, and what we can do to satisfy those needs and demands through local products.”
At Santani, they chose wellness, but Vickum is keen to point out that there are so many other opportunities for the country. “We have the best wildlife, I think, outside of Africa,” he says, yet “our wildlife offering is still very basic”. It is well known that Yala Block 1 is now extremely busy with mass tourism, so let’s ask the question ‘How can we do a better job in other locations and cater to other markets?’
One suggestion, he submits, is to leave Yala as a mass-market product, but to create a separate product of high-end safari experiences with small lodges of 10-15 rooms in Wilpattu. Similarly, Ella versus Knuckles Mountain Range, – “Let’s make Knuckles a different product, a different level.”
Carrying this to fruition would require zoning and regulation. It is not about being elitist or focusing only on high-end tourism, but about creating genuine product differentiation, says Vickum. “We can’t go the way Bhutan has gone. It’s not just high-end, exclusive products. We need to create products throughout the range of price points. But it has to be regulated. You can’t have a $1,000 property next to a $100 property, otherwise you will lose on both ends.”