Author: Ceylan Oymak, HKS MPP Student
Sri Lanka tends to conjure up a range of ideas by would-be tourists: its deeply intriguing history and relation to colonial powers, a 26-year civil-war with the Tamil Tigers, or, more simply, the paradisiac beaches, beautiful landscape, warmth of the people and the rich cuisine. I believe each of these things contribute differently to Sri Lanka becoming one of world’s top tourist destinations in the past few years.
High demand among foreigners to visit Sri Lanka surely presents wide opportunities for the country’s growing economy, while also revealing certain constraints for further development. Tourism is the third largest source of foreign currency into the Sri Lankan economy. However, the industry still does not live up to its full potential when compared with other countries offering similar experiences. Currently, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) is working with donor organizations, external consultants and development specialists to achieve a set goals laid out in the 2020 Strategic Tourism Plan, in order for Sri Lankan tourism to overcome the existing barriers to growth.
The overarching aims of SLTDA included in the Strategic Plan are 1) Increasing coordination in tourism between public and private sector organizations, 2) Improving the tourist experience and moving away from being known as a ‘cheap’ tourist destination, and 3) Expanding the technical capacity to gather and analyze data in order to better understand tourists’ preferences and patterns as they navigate the country and accurately quantify the contributions of tourism the overall economy.
I felt very lucky to be working at SLTDA for 10 weeks during the summer of 2018, where projects and proposals falling under these overarching goals were being drafted or implemented in a strict timeline in order to fulfill the plan set out for 2020. The most valuable part of my experience of working with SLTDA was that it captured different aspects of the ongoing work as I spent some time working with different people who come from various backgrounds, with different interests.
During the first two weeks, I was involved in the negotiations procedure for a large loan they are expecting to receive by next year for investing in tourism-related infrastructure and skill development in the hospitality sector. The loan will be invested in projects at the provincial level according to the needs and capacities of each of the province(s) the donor organization chooses (Note: Sri Lanka is divided into nine provinces where each province is represented by a local administrative government). These two weeks allowed me to gain exposure to the work needed to done on the ‘receiving end’ of a donor loan. Furthermore, as I attended the presentations of regional councils who are in a way competing for the loans, it further exposed me to the natural and cultural diversity of Sri Lanka and the variety of experiences it can offer to foreigners.
Another ongoing area of work was to review and edit the SLTDA Statistical Reports – which are geared towards policy-makers and other entities, both public and private sector who are involved in the tourism industry. These annual reports are designed to provide key information to various stakeholders on tourists’ experiences in Sri Lanka, including the demographic of tourists, travel patterns and how they prefer to spend money. The data presented in these reports is based on the Airport Departure Survey and Immigration Services. These reports gave me a strong idea of which indicators are most valuable to make policy-relevant decisions in the tourism sector, including how to provide incentives to the private sector while balancing environmental considerations. At the same time, it revealed that SLTDA could further enhance its data capacity and become more equipped to gather data from different resources.
Finally, most of my weeks were spent on developing measures for how to quantify the economic contributions of tourism. Under this question, I mainly focused on employment generated by the tourism sector. While we can’t be completely certain, our preliminary work suggested that tourism-based employment directly affects 5% of total employment in Sri Lanka. In order to model how many jobs are available in the tourism sector, I relied heavily on the practices and systems used in other developing and developed countries. As I delved more into this work, again I realized that the main challenge was the scarcity of data and lack of coordination between SLTDA and other public-sector entities that can collect relevant data on behalf of SLTDA. For example, a common practice in countries with comprehensive tax record systems is to rely on administrative data to gather information on businesses that provide tourism as well as household and business surveys to measure employment. Then, further technical expertise is used to integrate these different data sources in order to arrive at a consistent measure for employment. However, in Sri Lanka, there were two main obstacles: widespread informality in the sector and the lack of a coordinated and consistent way of collecting data at both the household and establishment level. Thus, we spent time in looking at data sources from other government entities that SLTDA can rely on and how to increase coordination with such government branches. The overall aim is to build a Tourism Satellite Account, a mechanism adopted throughout the world by both developed and developing countries that provides standardized methods to measure tourism’s contributions to the national income and employment.
Once immersed in the tourism sector from a policy perspective, it is obvious how valuable it can be for a country’s social and economic development and the scale of investment required from various stakeholders in order to fulfill this potential. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that the process of designing tourism-related policies can also provide tremendous insight to other sectors and industries facing development constraints. In general terms, a sustainable tourism policy will be characterized by strong collaboration between the private and public sectors, environmental protection measures for the majority of tourism-related investments, and investment in skill development. The knowhow required for a successful tourism policy, which allows both the tourism economy and the overall economy to thrive while protecting natural assets and vulnerable households, can be a valuable tool for any country that is aiming to reap benefits from the development path that the Sri Lankan government has set for the country.
Overall, Sri Lanka’s tourism sector is moving in a positive direction. The 2020 Strategic Plan is dedicated to improve the touristic experience Sri Lanka currently has to offer- there are projects to expand the road accessibility of certain key destinations, develop accommodation options that are limited in areas that receive high numbers of tourists (for example, Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site but mostly offers homestay or small hotels as options for accommodation) or increase the number of trained guides offering cultural or wildlife tours. One of the main goals behind improving and facilitating how tourists experience the country is to rebrand Sri Lankan tourism and move away from the common perception that Sri Lanka is a low-cost destination for foreigners. Furthermore, the country’s recent political and economic improvements are playing a positive role in attracting donor organizations and foreign investors, introducing further growth opportunities for sectors with large contributions to the overall economy. At the same time, the main challenges faced by the Tourism Development Authority are institutional problems which do not only concern tourism. The government branches need to collaborate in a systematic manner to make use of available administrative and census data to make evidence-driven decisions. The coordination between public and private sector organizations could also be improved to design policies that will improve the quality of services offered by both parties and ensure private sector development in a sustainable manner.
Finally, in order for Sri Lankan citizens to benefit from the promising future of tourism, the government should promote employment and careers in the industry and collaborate with the private sector on workforce development by improving the policies and regulations on diversity, compensation and labor conditions. The government strategy should be to increase the attractability of tourism-based employment for underrepresented groups and maintain a motivated, engaged workforce, which in return will inevitably improve the quality of establishments providing services to tourists.