Speech delivered by the Hon. Minister of Tourism Development, John Amaratunga at the Hospitality Investment Conferenece Indian Ocean held in Colombo on August 24, 2016
Firstly I would like to congratulate Sphere Conferences on its decision to organise this conference in Sri Lanka as I believe the timing is just right with the tourism industry set for major expansion over the next few years. With absolute peace in all parts of the country and a stable government that has given priority to the development of the economy, it is the right time to draw global attention to Sri Lanka through events of this nature.
For thousands of years Sri Lanka has been a treasured island in the vast Indian Ocean. The strategic location of this pearl shaped country gave it the pseudonym ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean.’ Early travelers and explorers who landed on our shores quickly realized its value and word spread about this mystical land lying in the center of the Indian Ocean.
This led to the colonization of the land by three different western powers over a period of nearly 450 years. In more recent times, the superpowers have been engaging in a game of attrition seeking Sri Lanka’s friendship sensing the importance of its geographical location which straddles the main shipping lane between the east and west. Using this to its advantage, Sri Lanka has steadfastly adopted a path of non-alignment, staying aloof to the beckoning of world powers.
In today’s context, Sri Lanka’s geographical location is becoming the focus of world attention for many other reasons, one of which happens to be as an idyllic tropical island holiday destination. This land has been blessed with golden sandy beaches right around its coastline stretching to over 1300 kilometers. Our world famous beaches have been ranked among the top 10 beaches in the world by many authoritative magazines and websites in the recent past.
Due to the three decade long war, many of the beaches in the north and east of the country were cut off to tourists. These areas are now open for investment and especially the east coast has been a hotbed for investment. Passikudah which has been compared to the gold coast has seen the opening of some of the most luxurious hotels in the recent past. Investment is certainly flowing in but we would like to see some of it going to the north as well which offers huge potential.
Sri Lanka though its known for its beaches has a lot more to offer to the discerning visitor.
Sri Lanka is a unique island destination unlike any other in its size. It is a compact yet diverse and authentic island with a rich cultural heritage where tourism plays a vital role in its economy.
Sri Lanka is certainly a land like no other. Nowhere else on earth gives one the opportunity of witnessing the largest animal in water the whale just a couple of hours after observing the largest animal on land the elephant.
Such is the diversity that Sri Lanka boasts of when it comes to its wildlife. Yala National Park in the deep south of the island has the highest density of leopards in the world while Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity per 10,000 square kilometers in the whole of Asia, and is one of the 25 biodiversity hot spots in the world.
All this is complemented by the traditional Sun, Sea and Sand tourism offering. The sea off Kalpitiya which is located in the North West of Sri Lanka is teeming with whales and dolphins and is also an attractive place for kite surfing. The East Coast of Sri Lanka with endless miles of golden sun kissed beaches is world famous as a wind surfing and surfing destination.
The ‘cultural triangle’ in the central region of the country is dotted with dozens of ancient sites documenting thousands of years of history and the highlands which are known as the tea country offers spectacular scenery and a cool climate that is very different from the rest of the country. I’m sure you are aware that Sri Lanka is home to 8 World Heritage Sites.
It is also a romantic destination for weddings and honeymoons. It is also a shopper’s paradise with bargains galore for many exotic products that have traversed the ancient silk route for centuries such as spices, gems and handicrafts.
Sri Lanka is at present poised for economic take-off. The reason I say this is that with the completion of the first year in office of the new government last week, we have put in place the fundamentals that are needed for investment to flow in. Today Sri Lanka has a changed political landscape that is hinged on good governance, upholding of democratic values, human rights and inclusive development of the country.
The newly elected government of Sri Lanka is committed to renewing its ties with the West while further developing the traditionally strong ties with the east. For these reasons Sri Lanka is today a respected member of the community of nations.
What this government can offer prospective investors is something that no government before or after can offer. That is stability. This is because the two main political parties in the country have for the first time since independence in 1948, come together to form a unity government for a period of five years.
On the economic front the government has given tourism pride of place while also driving the industrial and services sectors in its development thrust. The finalization of the Megapolis Plan and the new financial city will make Colombo the trading and commercial hub of the Indian Ocean between Dubai on the west and Singapore in the east.
What is truly encouraging is that tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka hit an all-time high last month. The number of arrivals which reached 209,351, represented a growth of 19.1 percent compared to July last year and is the highest number recorded in a single month since records began in the sixties.
What is significant is that the July arrivals figure is higher than even the figure recorded last December which is traditionally Sri Lanka’s highest grossing month. Last December too was a record with 206,114 arrivals but the July performance had eclipsed this mark.
This is all the proof that is needed that Sri Lanka is ripe for investment. The time is now and as the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. Judging by the current trend we are confident of achieving our target of 4 million arrivals by the year 2020.
This will require doubling of our current capacity. Already some of the world’s top hotel brands have begun construction of hotels here. Some of them are Ritz Carlton, Marriot, Grand Hyatt, Shangri-La, Sheraton, ITC etc. One barrier that we face is that the message that Sri Lanka is now one of the safest countries in the world has still not filtered down to some of our target markets. This is something that needs to be addressed. Towards this end a worldwide destination promotion campaign on a multi-media platform will be launched by Sri Lanka Tourism towards November this year.
With the increasing arrival targets, new hotels and thousands of new rooms we are also aware of the massive manpower requirement and steps are already underway to address this issue. According to estimates over 20,000 new jobs will be added to the hospitality sector each year over the next four years raising the number directly employed in the hospitality trade from 140,000 at present to 240,000 by 2020.
While the government is doing its utmost to maximize the output of trained personnel through the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, hotels themselves are being encouraged to establish training schools for skills development through tax concessions provided in the last budget.
We are also very keen to develop the MICE segment in addition to medical, health and wellness tourism, adventure and sports tourism, and especially event based tourism.
While our focus will be on attracting the high spending upmarket segment we want Sri Lanka to continue to be a destination for people from all walks of life. We have no problem with the budget travelers and backpackers, and we welcome the hostels and other establishments that are opening up to cater to these segments.
On the other hand there is substantial state investment in infrastructure development in identified tourist resorts based on a new master plan being formulated by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. In addition, we are investing on developing domestic air connectivity to get over the road traffic congestion issue. New airports will be opened close to Kalpitiya in the north western province, in Badulla in the central province and one was recently opened in Batticaloa in the eastern province.
The government will also shortly offer investment opportunities in the Colombo Hilton, Grand Hyatt, Waters Edge, and Grand Oriental Hotel which are listed to be divested in the private sector. All these offer unparalleled opportunities for you to participate in Sri Lanka’s tourism renaissance.
I thank the organisers for putting Sri Lanka on the Indian Ocean investment radar and wish the conference every success.