BUSINESS - INTERVIEW
Szilvia Szeszler's Interview
Ms. Kimarli Fernando holds the position of President of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority - which is responsible for establishing and conducting all marketing and promotional activities related to the country’s travel and tourism industry. Ms. Fernando is an experienced banker, lawyer and recognized corporate professional with a professional background, her professional career has held many senior positions. She also plays a significant role in tourism, as his family owns one of the luxury hotel chains. We asked her, as top leader of the profession, about the current state of tourism in Sri Lanka, as Sri Lanka has just reopened the borders to tourists. We were curious about the day-to-day practical measures, the strategic development of the country as a whole in the field of tourism development and its implementation through the tools of PR and destination marketing.
Chairperson of Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority
- How did you experience the beginning of the epidemic in Sri Lanka?
- The first patient was a Chinese lady who recovered and traveled back to China. The first local patient was a tour guide last March who was working with Italian passengers. We have set up a schedule plan long before the epidemic reached the country. When this first case turned out, we closed everything immediately, long before any country in Europe had done so; we ordered a six-week quarantine. At that time, there were about 80-85,000 foreign visitors in Sri Lanka. One of our most important measures was to return them to their homeland. There were those among them who wanted to go home, but there were also those who preferred to stay here for a longer period of time. We contacted all the embassies and started organizing their trip home. It was a big logistical task to organize their travel for the approximately 75,000 people. We designated hotels where they could stay until they go home, set up a permanent call center, and also a website where all the information was available to them during that time.
- How did it influence everydays?
- Life has changed in all areas, everything has taken place online, from education to public life. By May, the situation was such that it could be reopened somehow, so we re-authorized tourism within the country. Locals could visit hotels, have weddings there for example. So we intended to open the airport last August as well, but in the end it didn't make sense, because the countries who sends travellers to us closed their borders in turn, they didn't send passengers. Our country has five airports, out of these are two main airports, we did not close them completely because we had to receive our returning citizens. Many lost their jobs abroad, or just wanted to come home to be at home in this situation, we should have returned home with about 60-70,000 people. Commercial aviation continued, we are large exporters in several commodities as well, so the airport remained open.
- We know that a mandatory protocol on entry has been established, could we hear more about it?
- From January, we opened the airport following the protocol. Everything can be found on the website of the government organization of Tourism Promotion Bureau of Sri Lanka (SLTPB), www.srilanka.travel including Hello Again https://www.srilanka.travel/helloagain/, here are the information you need for your current entry; here you can get answers to all your questions; this includes the full safety protocol, the designated, tested first class hotels where you can stay, the approved tourist sites and attractions, the designated travel agencies, the health form, all the necessary official and medical contact information and everything you need about the Covid 19 insurance statement
So here are all the information you need to enter. You will need to apply for a visa in the same way as before, but you will have to indicate the hotel where the passengers want to stay before the trip. You can choose from about 200 hotels. It also shows the more than 1,000 tour guides we have designated to accompany passengers, the 125 travel agencies through which they can travel, and the architectural, natural, and other sites that can be visited. We have trained and all employees who can work in these areas how they are required to act and comply with health and safety regulations.
So you can book accommodation at the designated hotels, either through an agency or by themselves, there is a compulsory Covid insurance, which is not expensive, only $ 12. It is valid for one month and will cover up to $ 50,000 in any related costs, you find it exactly here on the page. You have to pay for the PCR test, it costs $ 40. When someone arrives, they go to the hotel, where either the agency will take them or the hotel will arrange the transfer. They are not allowed to use public transport. When they arrive at the hotel - which, as we said, can only be one of the designated hotels - they can unpack, rest and they will do the PCR test there. There is no mandatory stay, neither a minimum nor a mandatory two weeks in say one place (this has changed since the interview – the writer).
- How is the passengers’ holiday at the hotel? Can they use everything the same as before, or are there some restrictions?
- Everything can be used in the hotel if the result of the PCR test is negative, the pool, the beach, other rooms. If the result is positive, the passenger will be transferred to another hotel and stay there for as long as necessary. We don’t want Covid to ruin their trip, but we need to be extra careful and cautious now in complying with safety standards.
- How are the facultative programs? How can people visit the famous sites, national parks?
- The famous places listed on the mentioned website they can visit, but not allowed the mingling with the local people. When guests wish to visit these locations, they must request one of the designated travel agencies, who - on the one hand - will give the time when they can go and – on other hand - will call the appropriate driver authorized by the system to take them to the location. The office informs us which passengers went where and by which driver. This is how we monitor their entire journey. This is the so-called. "Bubble" system. We cannot risk, these strict regulations must be kept. There are also the designated hotels because only they can accommodate foreign passengers, the other ones accommodate the local population, and foreigners cannot mix with domestic ones here either.
- From where do you have tourists and which categories of them?
- We are open to the arrival of all kinds of passengers - recently happened, for instance that several families arrived with a charter plane and spent their holidays together here at the designated hotel; we have plenty of accommodation in all types. A significant proportion of travelers to Sri Lanka were characterized by a lack of pre-arranged travel, many people love to explore the country spontaneously. This is not possible in this form now, such as that public transport cannot be used by foreigners.
In a sense, this epidemic situation makes us possible to position our country differently and even if not targeting only the luxury category, but our new marketing campaign - which is just time about to start because there hasn’t been a serious image booster marketing campaign since 2017 - will build up a different image. We have already received permission from the Government, the tender is already being prepared and can be applied by several PR and Marketing agencies. First of all, we do a research on what criteria someone chooses Sri Lanka for travel and when all is done, we summarize the results and try to focus on introducing Sri Lanka the most beautiful island in the world where someone can get all that Asia can offer. .
- Indeed, Sri Lanka is a country with extraordinary treasures in all areas..
- Exactly; where is a country where we can see herds of elephants, thousands of years old religious buildings, four or five UNESCO World Heritage sites in one day? I would characterize our country that we are very “compact”. We have five international airports, two of which now operate, we have nine domestic airports, so any point in the country is easily accessible. The whole area of the country is green, rich in forests, we have the most waterfalls in the world in terms of density. Ayurveda, which is so popular and well-known, is part of our everyday lives, and it was a great help to us now in the Covid period, as well as the closeness to nature and healthy eating, we are basically vegetarians. This is also why the rate of falling ill was significantly lower than in Europe and the rate and pace of recovery was much faster. Our healthcare network is well-structured and centralized. It is divided into nine major areas within 25 districts and the medical staff is highly trained, well versed in what to do about the disease. Due to dengue fever and similar tropical diseases, we are not unexpectedly affected by such an epidemic situation, we have been prepared for it for a long time and we have the necessary infrastructure and training.
- May we hear more about vaccines and vaccination?
- Well, back to the vaccination, basically the rules are that whoever arrived in the country has to spend 14 days in one of the designated hotels. If he has a vaccination, then do not need a PCR test on arrival at the hotel. If he stays longer than two weeks, which we are happy to welcome, he can already go to other accommodation than these hotels, but you are required to have a PCR test beforehand.
- In terms of vaccination, we are already finished at the front line, basically by vaccinating medical staff, and we want to be the country who vaccinates the workers in the tourism sector first. This means 300,000 people directly and 2 million people indirectly. This means, first of all, the employees of the hotels to which the foreign passengers arrive; every waiter, maid, all the workers who come in contact with them will be vaccinated soon. The same goes for the guides who accompany the passengers.
- Can we hear more of the new PR and Marketing campaign?
- The share of tourism in our GDP is quite significant, 4 % (Approx.). That is why we spend large sums of money on marketing, focusing on the strongest sender countries, such as Germany, Italy, France in Europe and, for example, Australia and the Middle East. China and Russia are also among our main markets. At present, it is not possible to travel to us from most of these countries, so we also have to deal with marginal markets, as well.
- With all my respect to the responsible managers, I have a very bad experience – I see years ago that very big amount of money from the budget is wasted for inviting and travelling good-for-nothing „influencer” bloggers. I myself was a part of such a „media group” where we, professional writers and they were (very badly paired) together, which means that they are treated as if were real journalists with real writing and influencing capabilities, which of course is far from true. Dont you think it would be more economical and professional to work with real high-level and professional media persons only and travelling real stars as influencers, who really know how to influence people and can bring real results? Would not it be necessary to set up a professional PR Agency who is not working with cheap blogger-backpacer effects, photos, with lack of professional knowledge of destination management and categorizing this amazing unique country cheap and would not be rather be useful to target the luxury sector, making Sri Lanka a dream-destination which would automatically bring all the other categories of travellers?
- I totally agree with you and I think, you are right, speak from my heart. I also try to convince colleagues of this, who ask why there should be a PR agency at all when tourists come anyway. I told them to look at the impact Covid had - many lost their jobs in the sending countries, many could not travel, now a year ago; however, the luxury category can always be expected, from there they will always travel, thus involving the other categories as well. I myself also work in tourism by my family, we have a hotel chain in the country in the luxury category. I always tell professionals that even if we don’t have to make thousands of dollars in raises of price, we have to show by the prices that when people come here, they can see things that can be found only here in Sri Lanka, nowhere else in the world, it is unique. Not only we have beaches, but magical wildlife, culture, traditions, Ayurveda that cannot be compared to any other anywhere. So I totally agree with you and we think alike on this issue.
- Where do you travel if not stay in Sri Lanka, which are your favourite countries, cities?
- Apart from my country, where I love everything, one of my favorites is Germany, where I lived for 15 years and know quite well, the UK, which is a cool, quiet place, so I like it, this is where I studied and now my children do the same, I really like Italy, for example Rome. I have heard a lot about Hungary, but unfortunately I have not been there you yet, but hopefully I will visit once.