The changing face of tourism in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been experiencing double digit growth in tourist arrivals with over 2 mn tourists visiting the country in 2016. With a target of 2.5 mn arrivals for this year, and a target of over 4.5 mn arrivals by 2020 set by the government, the direction of the government as well as the private sector is that, more is better. At the same time, there has been growing concern with regard to the problem of overcrowding at certain popular tourist attractions in the Island. There have been reports of overcrowding in Sigiriya as well as traffic jams in Yala Wildlife park leading to even animals getting run over (Read More: Daily Mirror). While this has sparked a debate within the industry on what is the optimal balance of tourist arrivals, the overcrowding at some of these cultural and natural attractions indicates a growing interest in what can be termed as “Experiential tourism”
The rise of Experiential tourism
Since independence, the traditional markets of tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka were from Europe (including countries such as Germany, France and UK) where the main attraction of Sri Lanka; as veteran’s in the hospitality Industry would put it; is “Sun, Sand and Beach”. More recently, a shift in consumer preferences is noted with the change in economic circumstances which has led to a growth in arrivals from non-traditional markets led by tourists from India and China, along with growing awareness amongst visitors of the environmental impacts of tourism and the need for sustainability and conservation. While “sun, sand and Beach” remains a core component of Sri Lanka’s offerings, the above reasons have led to a widening of Sri Lanka’s offerings to include more experiential and culturally rewarding tourist attractions. This could range from taking curated walks in a city’s historic centre, camping outdoors in a bird sanctuary, visiting museums, art galleries etc. to get a sense of the culture of the destination. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority’s (SLTDA) annual report, classifies a number of tourism activities in Sri Lanka as Museums, Wildlife Parks, Zoological & Botanical gardens and the cultural triangle. For the purpose of this analysis, we have treated all of these activities as being part of “Experiential Tourism”.
What the data has to say
Based on the data provided by the SLTDA, here are a couple of interesting insights we noted:
Faster growth in experiential tourists in 2016
The experiential tourist arrivals grew at a rate of 48% YoY in 2016, outpacing overall tourist arrivals growth which increased at a rate 14% over the same period. Visitors to the cultural triangle alone saw a 2.5x growth from 355 k tourists in 2015 to 905k in 2016.
But less than 50% of foreign tourists choose to go for experiential tourism.
While 2016 saw a strong growth in experiential tourism, in the context of total tourist arrivals which stood at 2.05 mn in 2016, the attractiveness of even popular locations is comparatively low. Sigiriya was the most popular attractions with a little over 1/4th of total tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka visiting the site while Yala was the most popular wildlife park attracting 13% of tourists.
Wildlife parks gaining popularity
The proportion of experiential tourists visiting popular wildlife parks such Yala, Horton Plains which are in a natural setting has increased while the number visiting places with “Built-in environments” such as the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, the Dehiwela Zoo and the Peradeniya and Hakgala Botanical gardens have witnessed a slower pace of growth and hence a decline in their relative share.
Few sites/activities account for the lion share of the tourist arrivals
In 2016, the two sites; Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa had accounted for nearly 90% of all visitors to the cultural triangle . With respect to Wildlife Parks, nearly 70% of arrivals were distributed among 3 parks while there are 23 locations throughout the island that have been identified by the SLTDA as Wildlife parks. This trend highlights the fact that tourism in Sri Lanka is not sufficiently broad based and to a certain extent explains the issue of overcrowding which takes place at certain popular locations.
Key Question: Is there already too many tourists?
It is clear from the above data that while experiential tourism is has not been as significant in the past, the trend is clearly that it is growing in importance and is expected to continue to do so in the future. Hence a question that can be raised is if given the overcrowding that is taking place at some of these attractions, should attempts be made to restrict tourist arrivals.
To provide some context to this question, we did a global comparison of the tourist arrivals numbers of some of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO world Heritage Sites with some other similar attractions found abroad and we observe that these sites are able to accommodate much larger volumes of annual tourist arrivals.
Source: Travel & Leisure website
Hence, we believe that with proper planning and by increasing accessibility it is possible to increase the popularity of experiential tourism attractions in Sri Lanka while limiting the negative impacts of overcrowding.
In part 2 we will explore the earnings contribution of experiential tourism and give our recommendations on what can be done to enhance experiential tourism in Sri Lanka
This information has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable but Frontier Research Private Limited does not warrant its completeness or accuracy. Opinions and estimates constitute our judgment as of the date of the material and are subject to change without notice.
Source: Frontier Blog