(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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.