Five Ways to Enrich Sri Lanka’s Tourism Experience


(This article originally appears in the Daily Mirror Business of 10th September)

How can Sri Lanka stand out as a tourism destination? That’s a question that continues to challenge tourism development officials and hospitality industry professionals alike. The country faces a twin challenge of meeting ambitious targets (the latest one of 4 million tourists by 2020) while also attracting higher-end tourists. It’s certainly not a pipe dream. Sri Lanka boasts of a phenomenal diversity of attractions, as well as a ‘compact’ visit – emerald tea fields in the morning and picturesque beaches by afternoon. Yet, while we market this aspect, we may be missing out on small elements of added value at tourism sights that may not seem priorities but could enrich the overall tourism experience and the memory of the visit. This also influences the quality of tourists we attract – moving towards more ‘thoughtful’ tourists. Here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Beyond Guides and Pamphlets


In many countries, each attraction contains a myriad of value added features – photography storyboards to tell the history of the attraction, free talks by local experts on site, video documentaries in small auditoriums at visitor centers, etc. These add value to the tourist’s experience and could be important revenue earners as well. For example, the new Sigiriya Visitor Center funded by the Japanese government could include a small auditorium that screens short narrated films on the history of the rock, the frescoes, the engineering behind the fountain networks, etc., at regular intervals throughout the day. Drone footage of the top of rock from the sky can be combined with virtual reality headsets to give tourists a unique perspective on what the rock looks like today versus artists impressions of the palace in its heyday. At other sites in the cultural triangle, videos of computer-generated recreations of the typical life of Sri Lankans at that time can immerse tourists into that era. Architect Ashley De Vos has an interesting video, which, through computer animations, has attempted to recreate the day in the life of monks at the Jethavanarama Monestary. More of these would help tourists immerse themselves into the culture and get a glimpse of historic Sri Lanka, today.

The National Heritage Trust has series of excellent talks on particular aspects of Sri Lankan history and short clips of these that are relevant to the tourist sites can be screened. Photography storyboards that tell stories of archeological discovery and the stories of groundbreaking discoveries by the country’s leading archeologists could add an another dimension to the educational experience of a tourist.

  1. Engaging Tourists in Sustainability


Sri Lanka has made strong steps in positioning herself as a ‘greener’ tourism destination. With international travelers becoming ever more climate conscious, which is changing the way they travel and what they choose to do on holiday, Sri Lanka must leverage on this. Being a ‘tourism earth lung’ means everything from making our national carrier operate in a more environmentally friendly way, hotels getting global certifications and awards, and consciousness in how attractions are promoted. But there is more to it. Things that seem small, but can potentially have a strong impact. Take national parks visits for instance. In countries like Alaska, if you go on a park round in Denali National Park each traveler in the vehicle is asked to get involved in the conservation process. The packed-lunch box is made up of different parts – some are cardboard, others are plastic (forks), metal (soda cans), etc. On the last 20 minutes of the journey, on the way to the park exit, the tour guide passes along different bags for each, announces clear yet polite instructions on what to do, and everyone gets involved in separating the items. Its not just good practice, but gives a rewarding feeling to the tourist that he/she did something positive to help the environment and not be a burden. We can introduce this in popular parks like Yala, Wilpattu and Minneriya. Nearby hotels that provide breakfast snack boxes can be asked to teach tourists about recycling their rubbish. This must be accompanied with clearly advertised recycling bins at the park entrance. We have seen how this works effectively in parks such as Horton Plains, where park rangers check each and every bag of people entering the reservation, and confiscate anything made out plastic. A basic tenet of economic is that behavior can be influenced with the right incentives. Strict fines imposed for littering, and rewards like a sticker/badge to impart a ‘feel good factor’, could do the trick.

  1. Better Storytelling


Many countries around the world that you visit manage to tell stories of their cities and their cultures in fascinating ways. Not just the usual text that you can read up in a history book – but clever storytelling, that’s memorable. When passing through towns on a bus in a foreign country, the driver guide will make it a point to tell a little story about the area, highlight a small anecdote of interesting trivia, making a long and boring journey informative and memorable. Even the smallest story, that may seem insignificant to a local, can be fascinating to a foreign tourist. Whether it’s historical fact or fanciful folklore, tourists love hearing these stories and it enriches the tourists’ memory of the visit. The trains on popular tourist routes should have a special tourist carriage (where a small premium is charged on the ticket) that is fitted with a PA system where an onboard guide provides a free narration as the journey progresses. This will be especially useful on the picturesque up-country train routes. Whether its pointing to a plant growing on the sides of the tracks and explaining its traditional medicinal and healing properties, or telling the story of the struggle of building the bridges on the hill-country route, or a few fun facts about tea as the train passes tea estates, or even talking about local food delicacies that a certain region is famous for as the train passes that area. These all add value to the tourists experience.

  1. Smarter Souvenirs by SMEs


Many visitors who come to Sri Lanka no doubt love to buy traditional crafts from Lakpahana and other craft outlets. But around the world, small entrepreneurs thrive on selling unique, new, and functional country-themed souvenirs. How about iPad and mobile phone covers with Sri Lankan design motifs? Stickers, fridge magnets, key tags and other smaller items with pop art interpretations of traditional Sri Lankan patterns? This can be a great new way of linking in SMEs into the tourism value chain. Interestingly, a new Sri Lankan fashion accessory start-up called ‘Kantala Brands’ has begun bringing a traditional Kandyan-era art form into contemporary fashion. Made with the hana-fibre, the Kantala beach bags, pouches, etc., are woven by artisans whose skills date back to the 1700s. This is an example of bringing heritage items to current relevance. We must also focus on promoting Ceylon Cinnamon to bring it to the same level of recognition as Ceylon Tea, and tourists can play a strong role in that. With the success in registering the ‘Pure Ceylon Cinnamon’ brand, the world is beginning to become curious as to what real cinnamon is (as opposed to Cassia) and where it comes from. Many years ago I recall even seeing a local newspaper in an American town mentioning Ceylon cinnamon as being “a premium must have product in a kitchen’s spice cabinet”. Novel ways of marketing cinnamon, novel products using cinnamon (from barks to oils), gourmet and ‘tester’ cinnamon packs in gift shops at tourist sites are crucial. Tourists who buy these, take it home, use them, gift them to friends and relatives can create thousands of brand impressions for Ceylon Cinnamon globally.

  1. Making Everyone a Guide

Finally, it’s important to have more and more tourism stakeholders genuinely engaged in promoting the country and its unique culture, history, and bio-diversity. But for this all tourism actors need to be armed with more information on everything. For example, Anuradhapura history talk tour guides should know about wildlife in the surrounding areas, and Yala wildlife tour guides should know about history of the southern region. A pilot on a Helitours flight to Jaffna should be able to give a small insight into the North’s unique topography, while flying over the peninsula. In Alaska, for instance, whether it was a city guide or a naturalist, everyone had a very eclectic knowledge of the country – why some rivers are muddy and some are clear (due to glacial silt), nifty pieces of information on the native societies, and so on. So every talk would be memorable and every aspect of the journey would be insightful.

For many tourists, touring and visiting abroad is part of an interest in getting exposed to, and educated about, new and different places, cultures, and societies. Let’s add value to their experience so they really go back home thinking of Sri Lanka as Asia’s miracle island.

This is the 23rd article in the ‘Smart Future’ column that advances ideas on competitiveness, innovation, and economic reforms.

Xiaomi’s Online ‘Flash Sales’: Keeping Up Hype, Managing Constrained Supply

I knew that Xiaomi was the most popular phone maker in China and had a stupendously high valuation. Also that they only sell online, no store presence. But I never knew this about them – that they only sell in “flash sales” ever so often, it is in limited batches, and it all happens within minutes with a thousand mouse-clicks.

Here’s an interesting take by a WSJ writer, giving a good insight into how it all works, but also how to ‘hack’ the flash sale and get yourself a Xiaomi.

How to Buy a Xiaomi in Two Short Months

Improving Jeep Driver Behaviour at Yala National Park: Four Ideas from Regulatory Economics, Big Data and Behavioural Science

63e724042e7e3f79425fb9a3b3ba51e8_LBy now, we have all heard about the sad hit-and-run killing of a female leopard in Yala last week. It is yet another instance of reckless driving by safari jeep drivers inside the national park, and another nail in the coffin of a wonderful park that is increasingly becoming too crowded to enjoy. In 2012, BBC’s correspondent in Sri Lanka Charles Haviland experienced this first hand, and pointed to “anarchic behaviour by tourists and drivers” in his BBC article ‘Speeding and danger in Sri Lanka’s safari parks’. In June this year, the authorities announced a blocking of cell phone coverage inside the park, to prevent drivers from speeding around the park after being tipped off about whereabouts of leopards and other wildlife by other drivers.

Having being a regular visitor to Yala, I now avoid it, and prefer to go to the less crowded Wilpattu National Park instead, where drivers seem to be better behaved and the park is less congested. The scenes of the dead Yala female leopard were very saddening and I couldn’t help but wonder why not enough is being done about it. Explanations include “oh the jeep drivers are a mafia, none can control them; “they are all linked to powerful politicians so nothing can be changed”; “it’s too late now…”, and so on. To be sure, money is not a problem to introducing new measures. Yala is a very busy, but also a very rich park; it earned over Rs. 274 million in park entrance fees alone in 2013.

Here are some ideas on what can be done to tackle the problem, by influencing jeep driver incentives and thus, their behaviour. Ideas 1 and 2 draw from regulatory economics principles, 3 from big data, and 4 from behavioural science.

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Three Forces Reshaping the Global Economic Order


In the midst of tumultuous global markets, a migrant crisis in Europe on top of their economic weaknesses, and continued bloody conflicts in the Middle East, the global economic order continues to be shaped and reshaped every day. Attending the recent Global Shapers Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) gave a unique insight into the forces shaping the contemporary global economy, with exciting discussions with 450 young leaders from over 150 countries, complemented by the insights of the WEF’s Founder Prof. Klaus Schwab. Three forces, in particular, are likely to influence the future trajectory of the world.

  1. Era of ‘Grand Deals’ Over

There is growing recognition that the global order set up after World War 2 does not function as well as it should anymore. While some may feel it is a cynical view, its becoming increasingly clear that the era of grand global deal-making – whether it is on trade liberalization (evidenced by the stalling of the WTO Doha Round) or cutting CO2 emissions (evidenced by troubles in climate change agreements) – seems to be over. Particularly with regard to trade, we are seeing more and more bilateral, regional, and mega-regional trade deals being forged, in the absence of serious progress on multilateral ones. Mega-regional trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between the US and Asia, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between USA and Europe, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) within Asia, have come to dominate the global trade agenda in recent years.

Simultaneously, we are seeing new global financial institutions emerging, challenging the post-WW2 order of Bretton Woods institutions. The New Development Bank forged by the BRICS economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (nicknamed ‘The BRICS Bank’) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) launched by China and joined by the majority of countries in the West and East, are evidence of the rebalance of economic might and the challenge to the previous global order that governed international finance and development under the World Bank and IMF.

  1. New Industrial Revolution

Another fast-evolving force, which Prof. Schwab especially pointed to, is “the fight between brains and artificial intelligence and the fight between robots and humans”. The WEF, and Schwab in particular, has written widely on this subject. Of course, this issue may seem years away for Sri Lanka, but we cannot ignore the fact that this phenomenon will completely change the structures of global production, as we know it today. This ‘New Machine Age’ or ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ will have profound effects on the competitiveness of economies, on the functioning of society, and on the lives of individuals. One major way in which this will affect individuals is through education, or the lack thereof. Without a focus on education that gears people to take advantage of this new economy, we risk this new industrial age being deeply polarizing across skill and income groups, driving new wedges of inequality and injustice in society. All countries – especially developing countries – need to build education systems that foster agility, versatility, and continuous learning.

  1. Globalizing and Polarizing

Another important realization is that, as Prof. Schwab eloquently put it, “we are living in a world that is globalizing as well as polarizing at the same time”. The proliferation of global connections and information, through technology and social media, at the swipe of a screen or the click of a mouse has meant that we are now more globalized than ever before. Facebook and Google allowed friends of Nepali earthquake victims from another continent to check on whether they were safe. A young inventor from anywhere in the world can now raise money for his invention via a crowd-funded platform online. A protestor in a small town can broadcast about police brutality to an audience of millions, instantly. A consumer in a remote town can buy a product from a mall a million miles away. Yet, amidst this globalization has been an alarming polarization of people, across lines of ethnicity, religion, wealth, political ideology and other divides. And increasingly these are becoming more violent than before, and they are having a knock-on effect on the global economy. Global institutions, global agreements, and traditional power structures seem to be struggling to keep up, to mediate and mitigate these.

Future Outlook

Many of the young people participating in the WEF meeting collectively realized that the world we are now living in is completely transforming itself and we are not fully ready. Political power lines are being redrawn. Old economic structures are being deconstructed and reshaped. Technology is both empowering as well as marginalizing. The importance of young people having a seat at decision-making tables is clear, yet the extent of influence is not. The outlook sounds rather challenging, but it should be seen as a call to action, especially for young people who will inherit this new economy. It is also a warning for countries like Sri Lanka to not lose slight of the changes going on rapidly around us, reshaping the world as we know it; even as the domestic agenda often takes up most of our attention.

This is the 22nd article in the ‘Smart Future’ column that advances ideas on competitiveness, innovation, and economic reforms.

Article on Global Turmoil and China: Further Ideas + Responding to Reader Qs

102952763-GettyImages-477944034.530x298Following Wednesday’s ‘Smart Future’ article, I had a lot of very insightful feedback and pertinent questions. A couple of exchanges in particular were very rewarding, as it helped jog my thinking further as well. I thought it would be useful for the readers of the blog to get a taste of it, so I am reproducing extracts of it here. The gist of many of the Qs were: So why the declining export/manufacturing in China? Is it that it is being out-competed? What about their markets still being healthy, unlike the EU? Isn’t the US still the world’s consumer? And how come the markets reacted so sharply?

My responses covered 4 main areas, (apologies in advance as they may not be very well ordered):

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Turbulence in Global Markets: Systemic Risks of a China Slowdown?


This article appears originally in the Daily Mirror Business of 27th August, under the ‘Smart Future’ column

“When China sneezes, does the world catch a cold?” is a question on the minds of investors, economists and world leaders this week, as recent troubles in the Chinese economy sent ripples through markets around the world. The sneezing came in three bouts. In July, China’s stock market began to show the first signs of stress, with the markets in Shanghai plunging and over 1000 listed companies suspending trading. Then in a sudden move in early August, the People’s Bank of China devalued the Yuan by the sharpest amount in two decades, leading investors to believe that China was facing severe weaknesses in exports. The final sneeze was just last week when a key manufacturing factory activity indicator – the Caixin-Markin Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) fell to its most pessimistic level since the global slowdown in 2009 – a 77-month low of 47.9 (PMI below 50 on the 100 point scale indicates a decline). All of mini-sneezes combined to send jitters across the global economy, and since Friday last week the global economy has been sniffling. The full-blown cold came on Monday – now dubbed ‘Black Monday’ where nearly all major markets saw declines not seen since the onset of the global finance crisis. The Shanghai Composite Index fell by 8.4% – the largest one-day drop since 2007 and continued a further decline of 7.6% on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Hongkong HangSeng fell by 3.5%, Singapore Straits Times Index by 2.3%, Australia S&P/ASX 200 by 2.6% (steepest since May 2012), and the Dow Jones Index and NASDAQ in the US and the FTSE in the UK all down by more than 3%. The Dow fell by nearly 600 points after starting trading down over 1000 points. Many of the markets have since recovered somewhat, but continue to be volatile. Whether the cold goes away or develops into a full-blown flu’ remains to be seen.

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A Rock Concert That’s Keeping A Roman Relic Relevant

During a recent work visit to Switzerland I had a bit of down time and decided to visit some lesser-known sights in the country. I stumbled upon this Roman era amphitheatre
located in present day Avenches (Aventicum, back then). It so happened that this area was celebrating its 2000 year anniversary. The amphitheatre saw intense entertainment in the Roman era, where gladiators fought Bears and Lynx as 16,000 spectators looked on. The structure is nowhere near as impressive as the Collseum in Rome, and so it would easily be forgotten an
d derelict. Yet, guess what has kept it alive and relevant after all these years? A rock concert! Just last week, this Amphithéâtre Romain d’Avenches hosted a massive 3-day rock concert with 8,000 young people flocking to this Roman relic. I couldn’t help thinking – “Now THAT’S how you keep a relic relevant!” I also wondered, what are the chances of having a rock concert at the base of Sigiriya Rock? The organisers would pay a premium fee to the Sigiriya authorities, and tickets would have a small top up fee that each concert-goer would need to pay as his/her contribution. Money raised from it could go towards upkeep, improving facilities and enriching the museum, as well as heightened security to ensure everyone is careful of the ruins.

Here’s a panorama of the whole structure, taken as workmen were taking down the rigs from after the concert. Best viewed large, so just click on it. (And excuse my alteration over drive in the title – I couldn’t help myself!)

Post-Election Agenda: Setting Up a National Innovation Council to Drive an Ambitious Programme

innovation coucil

The Sri Lankan economy is in the midst of a unique, and tricky, transition. It’s easy for Sri Lanka to get stuck in what economists call “the middle income trap”. Already the country is finding it increasingly difficult to compete against cheap labour in low-income economies (like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos), on the one hand, and with the technology and innovation-driven economies (like Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea), on the other. Essential, then, to making a successful transition to upper-middle income levels and beyond, is fostering innovation in the country.

Ambitious Programme

Sri Lanka needs an ambitious and focussed national programme to boost innovation. Fostering a forward-looking innovation system, that supports knowledge-interaction among various parties, builds linkages between domestic and foreign firms as well as between universities and R&D institutions and the private sector, and commercialization of inventions, is critical, if Sri Lanka is to achieve faster growth. Also, of course, the daunting but essential element of raising the overall level of R&D in the country – currently at an abysmal low of 0.2%. The innovation agenda needs to be driven across the economic spectrum – not just in manufacturing and exports, but also in sectors like agriculture, healthcare, urban development. This is why the innovation agenda needs to be driven at a national, strategic level, taking an economy-wide and all-of-government approach.

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