The Report Company: Can you give us an overview of Sri Lanka as a tourism destination?

Nalaka Godahewa: In 2009, there was a study done ranking the world’s nations in order of happiness. We were in the top ten, despite being in the worst period of our history. We’re generally a relaxed people. Hospitality has been a tradition of ours for thousands of years and tourists find it very attractive. To find out from the departing tourists what they liked most about Sri Lanka, we do a random airport survey, and 70% of the tourists said their favourite thing about Sri Lanka was the Sri Lankan smile.

The country has many advantages. It’s compact, at only 65,000 sq km. Secondly, we are one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and we have authentic historical sites. The third advantage is the diversity. We can compare Sri Lanka to any destination. Maldives has beaches, so do we. South Africa has wildlife, we have the highest density of wildlife in the whole of Asia. China and Thailand have religious festivals, so do we. Malaysia has rainforests, so do we. Greece, Rome, Egypt and Cambodia have ancient heritage sites, so do we. India has ayurveda and yoga, we have 2,500 years of tradition in that. If you talk about countries promoting sports like New Zealand and Australia, we have sports, we are keen cricketers. For scuba diving, we 600 shipwrecks around the country, and less than 20 have been explored so far. We have such variety in the landscape in our country that makes it the perfect location for ballooning.

In Africa, leopards are eaten by lions and hyenas, but in Sri Lanka there are no lions or hyenas so the leopard roams freely. We have whale-watching all year round, as well as elephants. Sri Lanka has so much variety.

There are 8 types of tourism products that we promote: business, heritage, wildlife, yoga and religious tourism, festivals, sports and adventure, scenic beauty, and the eighth is our essence, the feeling of being in Sri Lanka, our customs, costumes, dancers, music, and the smile. We offer 8 wonderful experiences within 8 wonderful days.

TRC: One of the challenges for a country that’s just come through such a long conflict is perceptions about safety. How do you deal with this?

NG: People should see for themselves. We fought a terrorist conflict for 30 years, but tourists were not affected. They were never targeted. Today our security system is so good that we’re probably one of the safest countries in the world. We are very sure that everything is under control.

TRC: What can you tell us about your strategies to overcome misperceptions about the country?

NG: Tourism is most directly affected by international perceptions, and tourism is a key economic driver for the country. In 2009, just after the end of the war, our tourism revenue was something like $400m (GBP 252m). The number of tourism arrivals was around 450,000. The sector accounted for just less than 1% of GDP at that time. After the war, we set a target of 2.5m tourism arrivals by 2016, and to generate $2.75bn (GBP 1.74bn) in tourism revenue. To meet this target, we put in place a strategy with 5 key components.

The first is getting the environment ready, which means the infrastructure, the policies, the capacities, the regulation, service standards and also creating attractions, so we focussed heavily on that during the first year.

The second is attracting the right customer. We looked at the markets that we were catering to. We are a primarily European driven market, and while these markets continue to be important, we also need to look at the emerging markets of China and India. The UK is definitely a key market, and remains our second biggest market after India.

The third is taking care of the arriving tourists, so we do a lot of things to put standards and training in place so people have a convenient stay here.

The fourth is the domestic tourism, if you push that, the international tourism follows because you’ve set up the facilities, and that’s something people always ignore.

The fifth one was the global perception of the country. After the war we made each one of our ambassadors a tourism promoter. We also started inviting journalists to the country. We sponsored the whole trip and allowed them to see what they wanted. They could write whatever they wanted, with no obligations. Most of them went back to their countries and wrote positive articles about Sri Lanka.

We’re seeing the results. In 2010, we jumped from 450,000 arrivals to about 640,000. This year so far we have maintained about 30% growth and are set to exceed 800,000 tourist arrivals. Next year we’re aiming for 1 million tourist arrivals.

TRC: Given the rate at which the number of visitors is increasing, what’s your evaluation of the progress so far in terms of preparing the environment to welcome them?

NG: In 2010 we had 22,735 hotel beds, which is sufficient to accommodate about 900,000 tourists. By 2015 we want to have 2.5 million tourist arrivals. This means we need 45,000 rooms, so we need more hotels. We have done things to make sure that our procedures and systems are made convenient, and we have cut the bureaucracy to make it easier for the investors to come and invest and we’ve set up a one stop shop for tourism investment.

TRC: How important are the country’s human resources in supporting this development of the tourism sector?

NG: One of our biggest advantages are our human resources. Sri Lanka’s literacy rate is 97%, which is one of the highest in the world. The literacy alone is not good enough though. We now need to focus on specific learning areas, especially English language skills, We are also promoting the Chinese language, as by 2035 China will be the largest economy in the world.

Sri Lankan hospitality is appreciated by the tourists, but the hospitality is what our people bring from home. We need to make it more professional, develop skills, and train people to an international level. The total package that we have to offer to the world is as strong as anywhere else.

TRC: What specific areas would you highlight for investors in the tourism sector?

NG: There are so many investment opportunities in tourism, not just hotels, although we do need to build a lot of hotel rooms in the next 4 years, which is why brands like Shangri-la, Sheraton and Four Seasons are coming in. There are other requirements, things like theme parks, racecourses, casinos, yachts, marinas, and light aircrafts. There are so many things that are not there yet and can be built in the next 3 to 4 years. Ours is a virgin market. Unfortunately what’s happening is the Europeans are holding back. They’re listening to all these media stories talking about a problem in Sri Lanka, so the opportunities are going to the Chinese and the Indians. By the time the European investors come, it will be too late. So my message is don’t listen to these media stories, come and see for yourself and grab the opportunity now.

TRC: On a personal level, what do you want to achieve in your role?

NG: My personal achievement would be managing to put the right strategy in place at the right time. We have developed a very clear cut strategy which really articulates what we want to do and if we can achieve at least some of our key tasks, I’ll be happy.