No end in sight

The Covid-19 outbreak that has shut down much-needed Chinese arrivals to Sri Lanka has thrown yet another spanner into the works for the destination’s global marketing campaign launch, which has been delayed for years. Feizal Samath reports

Sri Lanka’s ill-fated attempt to roll out its global destination marketing campaign, which has been delayed for years by cumbersome bureaucracy and changing heads of the main state tourism agency, has suffered yet another setback by the Covid-19 outbreak that has crippled many Asian markets.

Arrivals from China, the destination’s third largest source market, dropped to a trickle in February and left Sri Lankan tourism authorities scrambling to maintain visitorship which was already hurt by Easter Sunday attacks in 2019.

One of the prime causes of delays to the campaign launch is the high turnover rate at the top of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), the main state body that drives tourism promotion.

In the past five years, six people have had been appointed to the chairperson role. In practice, this appointment is a political one made by the minister in charge of tourism.

Besides the lack of a stable leadership, the new chairperson often presents a fresh marketing proposal to the government, instead of carrying forward the proposal made by his/her predecessor, adding to the delay.

When Sri Lanka Tourism chairperson Kishu Gomes quit in mid-November 2019 after a new executive president was elected to power, industry officials said his sudden departure dealt a blow to campaign approval process.

“We have been struggling to launch the global public relations and marketing campaign in key markets. (Gomes’) resignation means further delays. We are going backwards,” cried Hotels Association of Sri Lanka’s president Sanath Ukwatte.

Mahen Kariyawasam, president of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators, the country’s main inbound industry body, told TTG Asia that the campaigns are not moving forward.

“If we even get the campaign out in 12 cities, it would help Sri Lanka tremendously,” he remarked.

The campaign, which would be rolled out in several markets including China, was allocated 100 million rupees (US$550,230) per city and does not require cabinet approval since the SLTPB – whose directors are also private sector players – is allowed to approve its own projects that are valued no more than 100 million rupees.

Despite the autonomy, new chairpersons were reluctant to proceed without government approvals.

For now, Sri Lanka’s desperate tourism hopes are all placed on a single destination marketing campaign – a poster project in the London Railway Underground which started in November 2019 for two months, and is expected to be extended for a further two months.

Kariyawasam said the delayed global destination marketing campaign has been in the works since 2015.

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