Full steam ahead

Sri Lanka is powering along the tracks to recovery following the Easter Sunday attacks, and the shake-up in national leadership presents ripe opportunities for tourism growth.

A train ride over the Nine Arches Bridge near Ella city is a trip highlight

The shadow that had been cast on Sri Lanka’s MICE sector due to last year’s Easter Sunday bombings is now a fading worry, as the country marches into 2020 with renewed confidence from event organisers.

Five months after the attacks, Colombo hosted mega congregation Ashara Mubaraka in September. The sermon received 21,000 members of the Dawoodi Bohra community from 40 regions and countries including South-east Asia, Australia, Middle East, East Africa, Europe, the US and Canada.

A train ride over the Nine Arches Bridge near Ella city is a trip highlight

This year, Colombo is set to host a healthy line-up of international events, including the Global Academic Research Institute’s International Conference on Leisure and Tourism in March; the 6th World Conference on Women’s Studies in May; and the World HR Congress in July. This uptick is an optimistic turn compared to the aftermath of the April attacks, when some 90 per cent of business events bookings for May and June were postponed, cancelled or put on hold.

Now, armed with a change in leadership from the November re-elections, the tourism trade is rallying for quality growth in 2020. Already more than 160 million rupees (US$2.2 million) have been pumped into an aggressive promotional campaign at the World Travel Mart (WTM) London in November, and Sri Lanka is readying for visits from travel associations from Italy, Belgium and the UK in coming months.

Under newly-elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prasanna Ranatunga has been appointed as the new minister of tourism. Sri Lanka’s industry players are now urging the new administration to develop a blueprint for the industry that prioritises quality tourism over quantity.

“The private companies have been working together to promote tourism for Sri Lanka. Right now, what we need is more support from the government,” remarked Ruwan Fernando, manager – Asia, Diethelm Travel Sri Lanka.

Other industry leaders, such as Aitken Spence Travels’ managing director Nalin Jayasundera, have expressed the need for the new administration to kickstart the country’s long-belated global marketing campaign, which was originally slated to commence last November.

The campaign was aimed at promotions in India, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, China, Japan, Russia, Australia, Benelux, Poland and Ukraine. The authorities were also planning to appoint PR agencies in 13 markets to assist with market intelligence, market analysis and key stakeholder contacts.

Old Colombo charms
Holding strong as the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo City has continued to draw high demand for meetings and conferences thanks to the lasting power of reputable hotels such as Hilton Colombo and The Kingsbury.

Christopher Zappia, cluster commercial director, Hilton Colombo & DoubleTree by Hilton Weerawila Rajawarna Resort, said: “In 1Q2019, Sri Lanka was doing very well, but after the attacks, business came to a screeching halt. Now, corporate business is slowly starting back up.”

Even Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, whose main restaurant was hit by the bombings, has since retained near-maximum occupancy, with the restaurant having been given an overhaul, said its assistant manager, sales – leisure (Sri Lanka), Yohan Liyanage.
He elaborated: “Even after the chaos, demand for our hotel is very strong. The majority of our guests – about 85 per cent – are corporate travellers.”

These hotel brands and properties are forging fearlessly ahead and will present shinier offerings this year.

Hilton Colombo has scheduled phases of refurbishment throughout 2020, while the chain has seven more properties planned for Sri Lanka in the next two to three years. Meanwhile, Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, welcomed an adjoining mall complex in October 2019 and will open two residential towers by mid-2020. Also, The Kingsbury recently completed reconstruction of its first floor, and now features a renovated lounge and a seafood restaurant.

As for Colombo, the city will welcome even more significant development in the following years.

The area surrounding Beira Lake and Galle Face will soon be populated by integrated developments featuring upscale and luxury hotels, such as the five-star local brand Cinnamon Life, The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott by 2024; while the raved port city with convention halls and shopping malls is slated for completion by 2025.

Affordable coasts
Just 30 minutes from Bandaranaike International Airport, Negombo is often overlooked as a transit city en route to Colombo.

The sleepy seaside city in fact offers MICE groups an affordable getaway from the bustling hub, with hotels lining the shoreline of the Laccadive Sea.

Rooms and ballrooms here are lower in cost, with unique spaces and suites affording sweeping views of the coastline. For example, the 139-key Heritance Negombo – a local brand along main road Lewis Place and popular leisure spot Browns Beach – is a large and stylish property featuring a main banquet hall for up to 250 pax, and a smaller divisible hall for up to 130 pax. Groups seeking a venue to relax and enjoy a cold bottle against the sunset can book out the See Lounge on level two of the main hotel building.

Another local hotel chain Jetwing also operates a number of properties in Negombo, such as the neighbouring upscale resort Jetwing Beach and family-style Jetwing Blue. These properties are favourable for medium-sized groups, where upper management or top performers can be placed in the more premium suites of Jetwing Beach.

Further south along the west coast, the shores of Kalutara are dotted with numerous resorts that offer a more peaceful environment, compared to Colombo and Negombo. Groups searching for privacy and sprawling facilities can consider resorts such as The Blue Water Hotel, Turyaa Kalutara and the upscale Anantara Kalutara Resort.

However, planners should note that not all hotel ballrooms and venues are fitted with built-in audiovisual systems. While some hotels can provide basic mobile projectors, presentations that require greater audiovisual capabilities may necessitate an external supplier, which can be sourced for a fee.

Strong incentives push
Bespoke solutions and memorable experiences are a strong suit of Sri Lanka that industry players are marketing to incentive groups.

As expressway accessibility in the country is limited to the airport and the main cities, local operators and DMCs still play a pertinent role in providing seamless group tours, explained Rashonitha Lilendva, customer relations executive of MICE.lk.

These tours run the gamut of safaris to a 260-year-old unsolved murder mystery, and can include corporate fine touches like VIP welcome performances, teambuilding activities and other tailor-made requests. Possibly the most prolific experience is a cross-country ride in a 19th-century steam train, on which groups can enjoy dining in a luxury carriage with a view of Kandy’s rolling hills.

Even groups staying put in Colombo City can enjoy unique pre- and post-event tours. For example, Aitken Spence offers a “dodgy bar” guided tour of historical watering holes in the city.

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