Unpacking Tourist Arrival Numbers: Is Maldives vs Sri Lanka a Fair Comparison?

Sri Lanka welcomed its 950000th tourist arrival for 2012. Image courtesy www.sundayobserver.lk

Sri Lanka welcomed its 950000th tourist arrival for 2012. Image courtesy http://www.sundayobserver.lk

Two days ago Sri Lanka welcomed its 950,000th tourist for the year 2012, a Polish graphic designer. According to tourism officials, this means the country met the annual target set for 2012. These officials have also been quick to draw a comparison between the Maldives and Sri Lanka. According to official numbers, tourists to Sri Lanka up to November were 883,353 while to Maldives it was 866,310. Now at first glance this might seem impressive. Maldives, with its offering of pristine beaches, magnificent underwater scenery, exquisite hotels – an overall veritable tourism paradise – has performed poorly than Sri Lanka in terms of attracting foreigners to its shores. But I would argue differently. The tourism numbers being reported don’t only capture the Germans, the Indians, the British, the Chinese who come to Sri Lanka on holiday, but also the Sri Lankan diaspora who come to Sri Lanka during festive periods. Even if you are of Sri Lankan origin, but live in Australia, Britain, Canada and elsewhere (essentially have a foreign passport) you still get captured in the “tourist” category. Especially in the season of November and December, arrivals of “tourists” of this type are pretty substantial. I overheard a conversation the other day that some Sri Lankans from Australia are chartering an entire flight to come down in December because there were so many of them and it would be more economical.

This is why a direct compare and contrast with the Maldivian performance can be misleading. Much of the “tourist arrivals” to the Maldives are real tourists – flying out to exquisite resorts, spending big bucks. It follows, then, that nearly all of the Maldives tourism arrival numbers translate into a substantial “tourism spend” – spending as much as US$ 2,500 a night on a room night in one of the many high-end resort islands. Whereas in Sri Lanka, particularly during festive periods like December, there maybe thousands of “tourists” who are adding to the official “tourist arrivals” numbers, but are in fact members of the Sri Lankan diaspora – a substantial proportion of whom may not even stay in star-class hotels in the city and elsewhere and spend the big bucks – instead staying with family.

So comparing our tourism performance with the Maldives must bear in mind this important caveat. Besides, what really matters – and any Sri Lankan hotelier or tourism professional will agree – is not just the straight up “number” of tourists coming in, but rather how much they actually spend while on holiday here. So far, the vast majority of tourists Sri Lanka attracts are to package deals with overall average daily spends of as low as US$ 70 at times. Compare this to the Maldives, where often you can’t find a resort with a room+breakfast deal south of US$ 300.

(Lanka Business Online also has an interesting take on it – http://lbo.lk/fullstory.php?nid=1626596202)

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking Tourist Arrival Numbers: Is Maldives vs Sri Lanka a Fair Comparison?

  1. I too found it curious that this comparison was made..I’ve always found the 2.5 mn target a bit strange bc what really matters is revenue, and simple pursuit of numbers could be counterproductive bc of the strain it would place on the local infrastructure and environment..from an economic perspective, 1 million tourists spending $2.5 bn is far better than 2.5 mn spending the same amount – GoSL should target value, not quantity.

    Btw, in 2011, 48% of Chinese and 50% of Japanese visitors to the Maldives went their for their honeymoon.

  2. True. Another factor SL should be cautious about are the accommodation rates. It’s already becoming an expensive destination in Asia with countries like Vietnam offering competitive prices. It’s seen as an expensive destination by tourists visiting from countries like Australia where per capita income is over $66,000 and you can get a 4 star cottage starting from about AUD 230 which could accomodate as much as 5-6 people. Wonder how far can SL can go before the rates discourage tourists from visiting the country.

  3. also why are we comparing to Maldives, which is a bunch of tiny islands, shouldn’t we be comparing to, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia or Bali,
    Bali being smaller than SL had 3 million tourists. SL in all honesty has a lot more to offer than bali, so how-come we cannot attract anywhere near that.
    Unfortunately feel the decision makers in the board of tourism members haven’t travelled the world enough to see what it is like. Maldives is not a good comparison to SL. SL has a lot more to offer.
    What SL doesn’t offer is enough options for budget or midrange tourist. They got the numbers mixed up, would you rather have a tourist spending $70 per day stay for 3 months, or a one who spends $200 spend 5 days.
    The agenda for tourism is set by the big 3 or 4 hotel chain, who monopolise the tourism industry from controlling the travellers experience from airport through to their hotel chain, and depriving the tourist of experiencing of what SL is all about

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