In a landmark address at the 58th Annual General Meeting of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) held yesterday (27) at Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, President Ranil Wickremesinghe outlined a comprehensive strategy to propel the country’s tourism sector to new heights. Focused on surpassing the target of 5 million tourists and redefining traditional approaches, the President’s vision extends to achieving 7.5 million visitors in the coming years. The President emphasized the need for innovative thinking and collaboration within the industry to ensure sustainable growth.
“When I took over the government, I realized that sustainability alone is not sufficient. How are we going to earn foreign exchange? How are we going to have a positive balance of trade? In that, there were many suggestions. But what is the low-hanging fruit? And one of the low-hanging fruits was tourism. Let’s promote tourism fully,” President Wickremesinghe declared.
The President acknowledged the need to move beyond the existing framework and embrace competition to elevate Sri Lanka’s standing in the global tourism market. Drawing parallels with countries like Vietnam, he questioned why they had more tourists despite being in the industry for a shorter period. President Wickremesinghe stressed the importance of increasing the number of tourists to 2.5 million in the upcoming year and subsequently expanding on this figure.
Central to the President’s vision is the enhancement of the tourism product. He urged the industry to specialize, tapping into the unexplored potential that Sri Lanka possesses. Referencing historical practices during the Anuradhapura period, he highlighted the early roots of tourism in Sri Lanka and encouraged a nuanced approach to promotion.
“Look at our food. From one area to another. Have you utilized it? Let’s do that. We have to be special in many ways. You remember, tourism was not something that was new to us. It was there even in the time of the Anuradhapura period,” President Wickremesinghe remarked.
Acknowledging the role of hospitality in attracting and retaining tourists, the President emphasized the need for a comprehensive experience – encompassing accommodation, cuisine, and cultural offerings. He proposed the diversification and improvement of Sri Lankan cuisine, advocating for a fusion of local and international flavours to cater to diverse tastes.
The President highlighted the potential for collaboration with expatriates to enhance the industry further. Drawing attention to the success of boutique hotels initiated around 2003-2004, he underscored the significance of niche markets, citing golf tourism as an example.
The development of tourism infrastructure beyond traditional attractions was a key aspect of President Wickremesinghe’s address. He outlined plans for the transformation of Colombo into an entertainment hub, emphasizing the need for diverse activities to keep visitors engaged.
“What do we do there? Very little. You go to a museum, it’s a short run. You go to Gangaramaya Temple. You look at the Independence Square and back. So what are we planning? It should be an area of entertainment or music or food. All the way up to the Independence Square, it will be a new area,” he explained.
The President disclosed plans for the development of the Bogambara prison in Kandy into a hotel and a hotel school, showcasing the government’s commitment to utilizing available resources for tourism. He urged stakeholders to contribute ideas and support to implement these transformative initiatives.
Addressing the issue of minimum rates, President Wickremesinghe advocated for a shift towards higher rates, emphasizing the need for a quality product that justifies the cost. He encouraged the industry to think beyond conventional constraints and embrace a new mindset for achieving the ambitious target of 5 million tourists.
“In this new era, we need new thinking. We can’t get there with the old mindset. Just forget it and put it aside. Think of the new people who will come. Then we can achieve our five million,” President Wickremesinghe asserted.
The President concluded his address by expressing confidence in the industry’s ability to achieve the 5 million tourist target and urged stakeholders to aim higher, setting a goal of 7.5 million with higher-paying tourists. He emphasized the importance of maximizing earnings and attracting tourists from both domestic and international markets without unnecessary restrictions.
The President also took the opportunity to honour two stalwarts of the hotel industry, presenting lifetime achievement awards to Mr. Srilal Miththapala and Mr. Hiran Cooray for their significant contributions.
The event was attended by key figures in the government, including Minister of Tourism, Lands, Sports, and Youth Affairs Harin Fernando, Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Lands Mr. H. M. P. B. Herath, and officials from the Hotel Association of Sri Lanka, as well as experts in the hotel industry.
As Sri Lanka embarks on this transformative journey to position itself as a premier tourist destination, the President’s vision sets the stage for a dynamic and prosperous future for the country’s tourism sector.
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