Big fan of Sri Lanka Sir Tim Clark shares his heart and mind for future of SL tourism


Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates, the world’s largest airline, last week spoke his heart and mind on the challenges and opportunities for Sri Lanka tourism in his keynote at the Annual General Meeting of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL). Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Chief Guest, and THASL President Sanath Ukwatte, industry leaders and diplomats were present. Emirates once managed and part-owned SriLankan Airlines and is by far the largest global airline operator to and from Sri Lanka. The following are excerpts of Clark’s keynote.

Every time I visit Sri Lanka, the one thing I always walk away with is a lasting impression of warmth and hospitality. In fact, it often feels like a second home for me here.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to meet and get to know many Sri Lankans ... including Sanath Ukwatte, who has so graciously invited me to speak this evening. And I genuinely believe that Sri Lankans are amongst the most friendly and warm-hearted people on the planet. That’s a wonderful asset, and a natural selling point for a country that’s looking to tourism to generate jobs and drive economic development.

Today is 23 October 2019 – six months and two days since the horrendous events on Easter Sunday.

The violence and tragic loss of life was a shock - to Sri Lanka and the world. In its aftermath, travel advisories cautioning tourists against visiting Sri Lanka came fast and furious. Tourist arrivals plunged, and tourism activity ground to a standstill. Today, most of these travel advisories have been rescinded or downgraded, but I understand tourism recovery has been slow.

Without downplaying or disrespecting the human tragedy of the attacks, my message to you today is simply this: pull together, galvanise your resources, and forge ahead.

Global terror

Acts of terror that target tourists in major cities thankfully remain relatively rare, but they do happen. In recent years, think back on the Paris attacks of 2015, the Brussels airport bombing in 2016, the various vehicles that deliberately ploughed into tourists and pedestrians at Berlin’s Christmas market (2016), in central Barcelona (2017), on London Bridge, at Finsbury Park (2017), the bombing in Manchester Arena during a concert in 2017, and the Christchurch mosque bombing which just preceded the Colombo attack. These were all terrible events, played out and echoed across the world through the news and social media. But humankind is amazingly resilient, and society has short memories. After the initial horror and introspection, these cities all bounced back. To borrow a cliché, the world (sadly) moves on.

Treasure trove

The Easter attacks are a terrible, one-off moment in the pages of history. And I firmly believe that Sri Lanka has what it takes - not only to recover, but to shine brightly again on the global tourism stage.

In preparation for this evening, I had asked Sanath for suggestions on what I should cover in my speech, so as not to bore everyone to tears in the interlude between soup and the main course. He suggested I share my thoughts on what the public and private sector could do to boost Sri Lankan tourism, and if there are any lessons to share from Dubai.

I thought an exposition on tourism tactics might be a bit heavy, but he assured me you were all up for it.

So here goes:

First, and I want to say this upfront - you are sitting on a treasure trove. Sri Lanka is an amazing treasure trove for tourism. If we’re looking at tourism potential based on nature, resources, culture, and history - Sri Lanka has it all. You are probably one of the few final bastions in this region, when it comes to unspoiled island nation destinations. You have lush emerald peaks and spectacular waterfalls in the Hill Country, miles of beautiful beaches, tea plantations, nature parks, colonial buildings, cuisine, culture, religious attractions … and to top it off, you have naturally hospitable people.

Dubai’s rise

When Dubai embarked on its journey to become a global city and destination, it had little to none of those advantages. Okay, it had a stretch of beach, a historical trading area around the Dubai creek, and sand dunes, but that’s about it. Look at Dubai today. The city has built a global destination, and a global name for itself, more or less out of nothing except a bold vision, a strong belief in its destiny, and plenty of sheer grit to mobilise everything it had at its disposal. And what Dubai didn’t have natural attractions, infrastructure, systems, policies, and so on - what it didn’t have, it created. The public and private sector worked symbiotically and hand in hand towards clear and shared goals.

Dubai’s transformation wasn’t an accident. It was very much planned and driven by the country’s leaders. They were serious about building a tourism industry, and they were not afraid to think big, and think bold.

  • From that bold thinking, Emirates Airline was born in 1985. Today we are the world’s largest international airline.
  • From that bold thinking, Dubai Airport went through several phases of expansion and improvements. Today it’s one of the world’s busiest airports.
  • From that bold thinking, Dubai created and marketed the world’s first 7-star hotel, the Burj al Arab.
  • From that bold thinking, Dubai carved out The Palm Jumeirah from the sea, adding miles of seafront to Dubai’s land bank. II’s a mega project visible from space. Today the Atlantis Hotel sits on this manmade

peninsula, together with hundreds of other hospitality, retail, leisure, F&B, and high-value residential developments.

• From that bold thinking, came the world’s tallest building, the world’s biggest shopping mall, the Dubai Opera, the Dubai Metro, roads, water parks, theme parks, golf courses, zip lines, and so on.

And it wasn’t a “build and they will come”, “let’s try our luck” inshallah approach. No siree.

The tourism board promoted Destination Dubai aggressively and relentlessly around the world. They roped in the private sector and offered resources and incentives to develop tourism products, do joint marketing, create commercial deals, partner on city-wide activities like the Dubai Shopping Festival, and more. Emirates, as the flagship airline for Dubai, had a prominent role in that strategy. To this day, we promote Destination Dubai in the air, on the ground, through our commercial sales teams, our marketing campaigns, our global sponsorships, and etcetera. Basically through every channel we have.

Why? Because we’re vested in it. What’s good for Dubai is good for Emirates airline, and vice versa. Because the vision set by the leaders, the strategy for Dubai is clear. We know our role, we know we’re working with other like-minded entities in this endeavour, and we’re empowered by our owners to deliver.

Simplifying visa

Tourism is a key economic pillar for Sri Lanka, I know the health of the industry is high on the agenda. Putting aside the recent set-backs, how serious are you in the global competition for tourism dollars?

What is the appetite for big thinking and bold moves?

Let’s start with visas. We all know that visa restrictions are a mental hurdle for many people when it comes to making travel choices. It’s a hassle we could all do without.

To be here with you this evening, I paid a small fee for the business tourist visa. My wife who accompanied me on this trip, did not have to pay for her entry visa, as she’s here purely on a leisure visit. 2 of us, 2 visa requirements and 2 different processing routes. Why not just do away with the whole rigmarole?

On 1 August, Sri Lanka reintroduced and expanded its visa-free entry scheme for EU citizens and those of 20 other nations. That’s a positive and welcome step in the right direction, but frankly, it isn’t a ground-breaking move or a standout initiative on the global tourism market. So now, visitors to Sri Lanka from these 30+ countries don’t have to pay for their visas. But they still need to fill up online forms, or make time to obtain their visas - whether on arrival or ahead of time. Tourists from the other 100+ nations around the wand would still need ETAs or visas in advance to enter Sri Lanka.

What if … we could abandon reciprocity principles, and throw open Sri Lanka’s doors so that it becomes “the most welcoming nation” on the planet? What if ... we could do away with any sort of form-filling altogether for travellers already on the visa-free program, and instead use innovative ways to manage the security assurances - for instance through biometric technology at the airport?

Malaysian example

Is there any room for bold thinking when it comes to something as legalistic, bureaucratic, and entrenched in tourism, as visas? Let’s have a look at Malaysia’s Second Home scheme, which I think is an interesting approach that takes a multiple-entry visa or long-stay visa program to the next level. Promoted by the Malaysia Tourism Authority and the Immigration Department, this program lets foreigners stay in Malaysia for a period of 10 years, if they meet certain criteria. Foreigners who want to participate in this scheme have to be from a country with whom Malaysia has diplomatic ties. Fair enough. They must demonstrate that they have the financial means to support themselves for the 10-year visa duration - basically, prove that they won’t be a burden on the host country. Fair enough.

Once enrolled in the My Malaysia Second Home scheme, foreigners can bring their spouse with them to Malaysia, their unmarried children under the age of 21, and even their parents. They can buy property in Malaysia, send their kids to school there, hire a domestic helper, work part-time if they have skills to offer in specific priority sectors, bring in the income they earned overseas without being taxed, and of course, spend it all in the welcoming land of Malaysia.

To date, over 40,000 people have enrolled into the program, contributing to Malaysia’s foreign currency receipts from tourism each time they visit. Many have purchased actual second homes too - for holiday, for retirement, for investment - which is a further boost for local developers and communities. And these foreign visitors become vested in the destination. I’m not saying that Sri Lanka should replicate Malaysia’s second home scheme. But don’t throw that idea out. Just think about it - what’s the spirit of the program?

Reducing or removing visa barriers to attract visitors is great. But in the face of stiff competition from other global destinations, I think there’s a case to look at bold and innovative ways to attract repeat visits, and command a bigger share of wallet from foreign visitors, especially those of certain financial means and lifestyle demographics.

SL’s post-war tourism

Sri Lankan tourism has enjoyed a great period of development in the 10 years after the country closed the chapter on a long period of civil unrest. The road system has improved a lot, there are new facilities for tourists, and new hotels have mushroomed, offering a broader and more interesting mix of accommodation choices.

The quality of hotels in Sri Lanka are first class - I rate them highly. Take it from someone who has travelled widely, and perhaps too frequently for his wife’s liking.

Everyone’s immediate concern is getting visitor traffic back on track, but I’m going to risk saying something counter-intuitive: keep building. There’s still plenty of room and opportunity for further development in Sri Lanka. You have swathes of coastline, and areas of land ripe for foreign investment currently unattended ... and you should not neglect those opportunities.

In the short term, do what it takes to stimulate and support tourism recovery, but keep an eye on the game-plan for the next 3, 5, 10 years. Incentives, tax holidays, public-private partnerships ... use all the tools at your disposal to maintain foreign investment and attract more for tourism development.

Where’s the future opportunity? I’d put my betting chips on Asia. From places like India, China, and Indonesia. New groups of millennial and Gen Z travellers who are environmentally and socially conscious, active silver travellers, female travellers, and so on ... start developing the tourism products to cater these new traveller profiles.

Cruise tourism is also another area of opportunity. It’s one of the fastest growing leisure segments globally. The Cruise Lines International Association estimates that over 40 million people worldwide will travel on cruise ships annually by 2030, compared to 26 million passengers in 2017. How much of this pie does Sri Lanka want?

In Dubai, the maritime tourism sector is expected to contribute more than 1.5 billion dirhams to Dubai’s economy by 2030. Which is why plans are underway to develop a brand new Dubai Cruise Terminal at Dubai Harbour. Despite the ongoing tensions in the Straits of Hormuz, Dubai closed its 2018-19 cruise season in August with 850,000 cruise visitors from 152 ships.

You have an unbelievable port in Colombo, and plenty to offer cruise visitors when ships night-stop or if they home base here. You’ve lots to offer whether in terms of shore excursions or day trips and overnight stays in the hill country. You’ve got the Indian Ocean archipelago at your doorstep, the Bay of Bengal coastline and Andaman Sea not far off. The opportunity is there to accelerate the development of your cruise business, and expand the range and quality of your cruise product offering to operators.

Role of national carrier

What about the role of the national carrier in the tourism strategy? I understand the trials and tribulations of Sri Lankan Airlines continue to be a topic of heated debate. The airline has incurred significant losses, and its future debt obligations are daunting.

There’s been talk about offering a big stake in the airline for a foreign investor to come into the picture. From a privileged standpoint as an observer looking at the situation from the outside in, I’d hazard an opinion that this may not be the best approach.

With the current aviation industry outlook and Sri Lanka’s own tourism ambitions, taking your destiny in your own hands could be a better option. Air connectivity is key to attracting international visitors. Therefore, even if flag carriers are a rather antiquated concept, there are advantages to having a home-based airline that can support the national tourism strategy.

The question is, how closely should its business model be aligned with the nation’s tourism goals? What are the projected source markets, considering the airline’s operating realities? Where can it position itself so that it is in a place of strength and can grow a competitive advantage?

The answer may become clearer after a root and branch review of the business model. As a career airline executive, I’d take the liberty to suggest the airline should focus on building up a network in Asia rather than Europe. Procure good reliable workhorses -like the new single aisle Airbus 321s. Negotiate a deal for about 20 of these, keep the fleet simple, and build a solid route network in Asia. Let the foreign carriers do the rest, and enter code-share partnerships where it makes commercial sense.

Sri Lanka’s main international airport is in tip-top shape. All that needs doing there is to keep it up, and keep your skies open. Constantly refresh the facilities and product offering for travellers and airlines. Invest in technology to ease the customer journey, and serve airline customers better. With all that in place, foreign carriers will naturally come knocking, especially if you have a strong marketing machine to push things along.

Destination marketing

Right now, more than ever, Sri Lanka could do with a master-orchestrated PR and marketing exercise on the global stage.

Recapture the interest and imagination of travellers and travel players on the world stage, and grow your reputation as a tourism powerhouse. With all that Sri Lanka has as a destination, there’s plenty of marketing material. What it needs is a good story - one that stands out, and one that sticks.

Think big, think visual. Consider the use of celebrities for global impact, if necessary. Then get the word out. Forget old-fashioned travel trade shows, and look at how the Sri Lanka story can be told in the new world of digital advocacy and Google search wars. Be creative - look at Singapore Tourism, and what the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians did for destination Singapore. Or Lord of the Rings and New Zealand; or Game of Thrones and Dubrovnic in Croatia. When building a brand - whether for a destination or a product - you’ve got to be prepared to put resources behind it, drive it across all the channels you can touch, and sustain it. If you think about what Emirates spent on our campaign with Hollywood star Jennifer Aniston - that was $5 million dollars on fees alone, and multiples of that to push the campaign globally. As brand campaigns go, we got the impact we wanted, and we got our return on investment. People today still recall and talk about that ad.

Similarly, the global visibility of the Emirates brand at major sports events is not an accident. We’ve ploughed in hundreds of millions of dollars into strategic sponsorships over the years, and we used clever marketing and PR to amplify and leverage these assets. We treat these as long-term investments. Emirates’ relationship with the English football club Arsenal began in 2004 when we got naming rights for their stadium back in 2004. That’s 15 years ago, and we’ve recently extended it till 2028. That’s commitment. That’s a long-term view. That’s what building a brand is about. Smoothing the visa process, developing the right tourism products, supporting local operators and incentivising investments for tourism development, that’s all par for the course. But without marketing, no-one is going to know all the wonderful things happening here. It’s important to get the word out there, on the global stage, to travellers who have a dazzling array of other compelling destinations to choose from. To get momentum and cohesion, all tourism stakeholders - tour operators, hotels, industry partners ... all have to be engaged, and be of one voice and one spirit in this pursuit. Sri Lanka has so much to offer. You’ve got to believe in your product, and your potential, and go out there to make things happen.

Emirates is a big fan of Sri Lanka, having served this market since 1986. I’m a big fan of Sri Lanka, and I believe that collectively, you can galvanise the next tourism renaissance for this amazing country.