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)