Two independent UK-based tour operators Travel Gallery and Experience Travel Group hosted “Sri Lanka Revival” on 16 July in London. The event, focused on encouraging holidaymakers to return to the beautiful paradise isle, drew in over 90 UK tour operators, 40 journalists and 50+ representatives from Sri Lankan hotels and Destination Management Companies (DMCs).
“The clear message which we wanted to convey was that Sri Lanka is open for business, safe, just as beautiful, packed full of experiences and offering the warmest of welcomes to travellers and holidaymakers,” said Farzana Marikkar Dobbs, the founder of Travel Gallery and The Rosyth Estate House – a boutique hotel in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka depends heavily on the tourism sector (it’s third highest foreign exchange earner, on track to become its highest) for equitable growth that generates sustainable jobs across the value chain and around the country. The 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks had a substantial and immediate impact on tourism inflows to the country- tourist arrivals slumped 70% in May and 57% in June versus last year. Reuters estimated that the country faces lost tourism revenues of USD 750 million this year.
Against this bleak backdrop, Farzana and her husband Neil Dobbs alongside other private sector players worked tirelessly to lobby the UK Foreign Office to get the Travel Advisories lifted. Recognizing that it would be a major task to get bookings flowing again after the advisory was downgraded, they seized the opportunity to cut through the noise and communicate directly to tour operators, holidaymakers and the media, organizing the large-scale event in London with the backing of their trade organization, AITO (The Association of Independent Tour Operators). “As a proud Sri Lankan living between London and Sri Lanka, I was determined that we should host an event focused on helping to revive my home country, uniquely organized by the private sector, but for the benefit of the whole tourism industry in Sri Lanka,” says Farzana.
She added, “Working together with Sam Clark from Experience Travel Group, with support and encouragement from our trade association, AITO, plus the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, the Sri Lankan High Commission in London and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) in Colombo, has been fantastic and gave us the confidence and back-up to stage this event.”
The event was unique as it was primarily crowd-funded by the private sector with the tourist board stepping in towards the end, with the costs under-written by a personal guarantee from Farzana and Neil. As boutique hotel owners in Sri Lanka, with Rosyth Estate House in Kegalle and the stunning attached Rock Villa suites, they intimately understand the predicament faced by the private sector in tourism at present. Rosyth is a 1926 colonial planter’s bungalow set in a 62-acre private tea and rubber estate, with glowing recommendations from publications such as the UK’s Daily Telegraph and outstanding Trip Advisor reviews. The Rock Villa Suites in particular have drawn rave reviews from guests- the luxury villa perched on a rock overlooks the stunning Kegalle valley. “Like others, we are invested in making sure that guests return to Sri Lanka to enjoy our country’s unique landscape, scenery and people, and the properties we have invested in with so much passion,” said Farzana. “This event is for those that have faith in Sri Lanka as a beautiful destination, and also for those- like our staff and the small business owners we work with- who depend on the sector for their livelihood.”
In a thought-provoking panel discussion, Manisha Gunasekera, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK, focused on the steps which the government has taken to increase security and the co-operation it has enjoyed with overseas governments to increase counter-terrorism measures; she also reinforced the message that Sri Lanka remains a beautiful destination.
Hiran Cooray, Jetwing Hotels and Sam Clark, Experience Travel Group
Hiran Cooray of Jetwing Group and Malik Fernando of Resplendent Ceylon both commented on the steps which the private sector has taken to ensure that positive messages reach the wider public. In particular, the private sector has united under the umbrella of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, to provide a channel to communicate effectively, to lobby and to formulate an annual marketing plan for promoting the destination, utilizing the latest in marketing expertise. Fernando believes that the private sector can respond more quickly and, with a nimble approach, to generate interest and new business more effectively. Sam Clark of Experience Travel Group, representing UK tour operators spoke of the need for a sustained recovery, not simply price-led marketing, allowing all stakeholders from the local tuk-tuk driver or coconut seller up to the luxury hotel owner, to benefit from the recovery.
The audience learnt that SLTPB plans to launch a major (USD 6M) international social media campaign targeting the country’s top-performing markets, including the UK. They will be aimed at generating renewed interest in the destination and encourage bookings in advance of the key winter travel months.
Together with the stimulating panel discussion, the event showcased Sri Lankan food and drink; cocktails and delicious Sri Lankan curries made to Rosyth Estate House recipes. Guests from the UK and Sri Lanka travel industry were entertained by VIP guest, cricketer Mahela Jayawardene, who spoke about his country with passion.
The industry has an uphill battle to get back to the heights it had reached earlier in 2019, but bookings are returning; Hiran Cooray, who operates the largest inventory of rooms in Sri Lanka, commented: “We didn’t expect the recovery to be fast… all the experts said it would take nine to 12 months – but the support we’ve had, worldwide, has been amazing. We are so grateful to travel agents and tour operators – it has been overwhelming.”
Commenting on the success of the evening, Neil Dobbs said: “We were delighted by the level of support at the event, and the incredible passion shown by all guests to relaunch and revive tourism to Sri Lanka. Whilst it is clear that the recovery will take some time, the goodwill and positive vibes shown to Sri Lanka by the trade and the press in the UK has been fantastic.”