A Sense of Sri Lanka

September 2001

Ever looked at a holiday spot and wished you could go back in time and start over - knowing all the things you know now? Through circumstances, few destinations have such an opportunity but Sri Lanka is one that does.

With a strong breadth of product offerings and a united industry that is eager to build a sustainable visitor base, the country is seeking to build upon the launch of its new brand image this year and to build lasting partnerships at crucial events like World Travel Market and ITB.

Having visited Sri Lanka recently, I can attest to the fact that it is "A Land Like No Other".

Yet it is useful to look at all the elements available in the destination to enable better packaging of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, to me, has some of the best elements of each destination in Asia - from beaches to culture to heritage to food to natural beauty, in a compact area.

In its own mission statement recently, Sri Lanka Tourism described its unique selling proposition as the following: "Sri Lanka has a unique combination of its beaches; a 2,500 year culture; its historical ancient cities; its seven world heritage sites; probably the world's eighth wonder in Sigiriya; the tea-growing hill country; and the added uniqueness that all this is within the reach of visitors in a relatively small land area - an island country."

Sri Lanka has pieces of Asia which appeal to me - its green tropical lushness, the golden beaches of a South-east Asian destination mixed with a rich, warm South Asian cultural blend; an ancient Buddhist culture and an interesting colonial history and newly-acquired trade patterns.

Add the fact that the country is one of the few original sources of Ayurveda, the "science of life", and that 13 percent of its land mass is designated for wildlife and nature conservation - and you have a potentially potent mix.

But the first thing you notice when driving through any Sri Lankan hill town is that big smile. Sri Lankans I had met previously were easy people to like and my visit there confirmed this. They are smiling and gracious to strangers, with a genuine interest in guests. As Peter Hill, CEO of Sri Lankan Airlines, says, "In Sri Lanka, it's not a plastic smile - it's genuine. We've got to continue to push it."

They also have an enjoyment of the good things in life - food, dancing, music - which adds to the allure of a visit, especially for a tourist. The best Sri Lankan ceremonies are awash with fire dancing, bright coloured costumes, frenetic drumming - and often a whole procession of elephants adorned in finery.

Yet I also discovered a deep pride and appreciation of heritage and for preserving some of the country's finest assets, be it natural or cultural, giving its tourism industry a chance of a sustainable future.

An ecotourism conference I attended in Dambulla was well attended and debate over the way to protect and project the country's biodiversity, to the level of "eco-friendliness" of its hotels, was fierce.

While it has already much to be proud of - its hotels and agents who are among the first to be granted Green Globe certification - there appears to be real resolve to lay strong foundations and attract the right types of investors to avoid the "price trap" of other destinations.

Thus, a focus on culture and ecology and a move "beyond beaches". And in a market demanding "deeper" travel experiencing, it appears Sri Lanka's arrival "online" could be well timed.

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