Destination Innovation in a New Era

By 6 April 2021May 3rd, 2021Innovation

Destination Innovation in a New Era

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By Julie King

Interview with Kimarli Fernando

Kimarli Fernando is the chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism, heading the government’s four main tourism entities, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lanka Convention Bureau and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management

The 4th blog about Sri Lanka covers topics around innovation, research and development investment and the future of events.

In terms of the innovation side, one of the things you mentioned briefly was the research that you’re conducting with Australia’s Market Development Facility, to create the roadmap, to allow you to understand the visitors who are coming to Sri Lanka. How will you use the research to start developing new products that align with your findings in that research? Or are there any other innovative ideas that you’re looking at to use the research for?

The research is critical for us as we wait because we will have such a lot of data with that research and the app. We will know, country, age, who will go where because they will also be able to use the app to buy online tickets for the government agency tourist sites. We have no idea today. We will be able to say that windsurfing has a particular clientele, that specific people go there, and they do not visit any other site. This information will be very valuable; then we can realign our products and service. There is no way to promote to so many millions of people without knowing what they are looking for. And I think it will probably be the independent traveller looking for an experience, looking for that space, maybe not so much the cities. Most of Sri Lanka is not dense at all; there’s greenery, there are forests, you know. They are keen to get that information to make the changes.

During COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, have you seen any unique areas of innovation where the industry partners have been pivoting their businesses? 

Initially, some of the hotels were converted into quarantine centres. People were given a choice, if you like to stay in the government, quarantine free, free food etc. It’s not big money, but it provided some support when nobody’s using room services or using a bar or food and other services. So we did that first. 

The second area we looked at was for the seafarers; the seafarers worldwide had nowhere to go. Many countries were not allowing the ships to dock. We decided we would allow that, so we selectively allowed ships to dock and the crew to be taken under strict measures to specific hotels, which provided income for them. Now we are looking at hotels to see if they are interested in converting into hospitals. We are looking at several angles like that; the industry is quite resilient but this time, it’s a big blow, it’s very hard. 

We are also talking to the World Bank to create an investment portal for people who want to look for partners. A hotelier who wants to look for a partner or an investor can go in. They will provide the information, tell us what they need, what type of property, what type of location and classification, and then we will merge them to give them that information. Last week, we asked the World Bank if they would please assist us with the technical side to do something like that. I’ve seen it in some other countries. 

“But it’s strange because investors are still coming in from Europe. What we have done is that we have set up a USAID project. In the past, if you wanted to invest in Sri Lanka, you had to go to about thirty-four line agencies for various approvals. What we have done is we’ve merged all those thirty-four applications into one master document. When you want to invest, we just give you that master document where there are sections for each line agency. So we put it all together into a single beautiful document and make investment easier. Now the investment level in Sri Lanka tourism has increased from last year.

Is it mainly in the hotel sector, or is it attractions and other experiences?

Both. For example, boat building because there’s a lot of interest now to use our many underutilised canals. We have investors who are coming in for that purpose. We have them come in for wellness; they invest in very high end, boutique hotel type endeavours. Massive investment projects will change individual districts, even the whole economy. And a lot of them are still investing in tourism education. We are talking to several institutions, even in Switzerland, to work with them on a partnership with a hotel school. We, Sri Lankans, are proceeding; we have no issues.

What about festivals and events? And I guess business tourism (MICE) moving forward – will there be many changes to how you’ve operated in those areas, moving forward into this new era?

Sri Lankans have big weddings and functions. So when we initially stopped it, there was a lot of demand, so we gave guidelines on how to have functions, and we continue to have big weddings. We allowed up to three hundred, and people complained because they used to five hundred or a thousand. They were recently reduced to fifty until we get the increase in Covid-19 numbers sorted. 

But we will continue with MICE; we will continue with the wedding tourism as it is a big market for us. As long as it’s fifty people, we can do it; when it gets to two hundred, we cannot do so at the moment. But we will continue because our MICE business is not huge like in some other countries, which have events for ten thousand people. We have a different market. And going forward, we can combine tourism with MICE. I think the Sri Lanka industry can provide that unique experience. 

“As an industry we weren’t solving the problems that really mattered. We were disconnected from each other and not leading the way.”

Julie King
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