26 September, 2017

The National Carrier & Tourism Promotion

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.’ ~ Ayan Rand

2016 marks 50 years since the establishment of the Ceylon Tourist Board in 1966 now styled Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.

The recent brouhaha caused by a high powered delegation to an annual trade fair in Berlin headed by the Minister of Tourism that included the Chairman of SriLankan Airlines is the immediate cause of this retrospective assessment of the role of the national carrier in promoting tourism.

SriLankan airlines has acknowledged that ‘it has had to respond to a highly competitive market environment by reevaluating its current operations and redeploying capacity to more sustainable routes and destinations.’[‘Srilankan Realigns Operations’ Serendib magazine of SriLankan Airlines P 61]

The airline should be applauded for its innovative approach in building brand equity. They inform the boarding passenger in its inflight magazine that they have had to respond to competition! It is a nudge for us to pay heed to Ayan Rand. ‘We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.’ SriLankan Airlines

We embarked on promoting tourism in 1966. It was the year that Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China. It was also the year, Indira Gandhi took charge of India.

The world was different and so was our ‘weltanschauung. ’ Our tourism policy makers were positively persuaded that global tourism was a phenomenon that flowed from the heartland of Europe. It was a reasonable assumption then. To persist in that assumption today is lunacy. SriLankan airlines has withdrawn from Rome but continues its operations to Paris, Frankfurt and London.

Up to the nineties, the national carrier competed with charter carriers out of continental Europe. The German charter carriers even managed to become ‘designated airlines’ under bilateral air services agreements. The priority then was to allow anybody who promised numbers. The tourist board was running on statistics. The national carrier was paying OPEC prices for fuel.

The subsequent reduction of charter flights to Colombo in late nineties was mainly due to the emergence of Middle Eastern hub carriers. They added more capacity from Europe to Colombo from numerous points and more importantly with greater flexibility in frequencies which allowed different combinations in terms of destinations and duration.

In Europe the National Carrier confronted an uneven battle. The European tour operators were well merged with the charter airlines. The tour operators also held a firm grip of the hospitality industry in the destination. The integrated mass tourism mechanics was in total control. To some extent, it explains the less than successful efforts of the national carrier in its European sectors in the eighties and nineties.

The national carrier lived in a make believe world. Its product was perishable. When charters operated the local hoteliers cheered. Additional capacity compelled the national airline to decide between carrying fresh air and bums on seats. Price discounting was the adopted tactic of choice.

In the sixties, the world was awakening to post war mass tourism. Western Europe, North America and Japan were the principal generating markets. Spread of Television delivered images of distant, exotic destinations in to their living rooms. The post war affluence under West German social democracy triggered a demand for holidays to destinations beyond the traditional spots in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. This demand for affordable holidays was met by European Tour operators with holiday packages inclusive of Air travel on chartered flights.

It was also in 1966, that the most vibrant European economy of the time- that of West Germany discovered long haul leisure destinations. In 1966, Condor – the leisure airline of Thomas Cook AG owned by “Deutsche Flugdienst GmbH” announced long haul flights to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kenya and the Dominican Republic.

Our tourism promotion coincides with the age of the jumbo jets and international credit cards. The late 1960s saw the advent of the Boeing 747 and the DC 10. Eight years earlier in 1958, American Express issued its first charge card.

A holiday in the tropics was a ‘‘socio cultural experience of the west’. The blurb writers saw it as an encounter between an unending flow of curious Caucasians from the European heartland eager for an encounter with the personable peasant in the paddy field, the brawny fisherman on his ‘Catamaran’ and the smiling lass of unhurried demeanor in her Cadjan thatched hut.

The mesmeric melody of ‘Sri Lanka Paradise’ greeted the passenger on Air Lanka – the redesigned national carrier that replaced Air Ceylon launched with three war surplus Douglas 3 Dakota aircraft. The refashioned National Carrier – Air Lanka was intended to fly in to a brave new world in the open market economy.

The National Carrier regarded ‘global connectivity to destination Sri Lanka’ as its raison d’être, its existential purpose. Destination ‘Sri Lanka’ was its rational and emotional appeal and the core of its marketing strategy.

Air Ceylon in its ‘Sapphire Service’ offered a ‘Land of Song and Dance.’ Air Lanka offered a ‘Taste of Paradise.’ ‘You’re our world’ is what SriLankan Airlines assures the consumer today.

When the National Carrier was briefly managed by a Middle Eastern mega carrier the refashioned airline as ‘SriLankan airlines adopted the theme “You‘re our world’. It was a grudging halfhearted concession to the 21st century dynamics of the global economy. The focus remained on destination ‘Sri Lanka’ even under the aggressive mega hub pioneers of Emirates.

But the world has moved on. The center of gravity of the global economy that was located in the mid – Atlantic in the 1980s has inexorably moved east.

Neighboring India with a middle class of around 70 Million has emerged as the largest generating market. China holds equal or greater promise. Indonesia awaits discovery.

The curious Caucasian is replaced by the Indians and the Chinese. The Chinese are now regarded in Europe as ‘walking wallets.’ They demand affordable luxury as a value proposition. They have learnt to measure hospitality and service excellence by scales perfected in their civilizational trajectories that originate in the mist of time.

The world has changed. Internet use and proximity of the generating markets, determine who visits the island and at what price.

Sri Lanka which is equidistant from the straits of Hormuz and the straits of Malacca has an airline that has to contend with two mega aviation hubs at both points. While, India is the largest generating market, in the coming decade China will remain the fastest expanding outbound market.

A leisure destination is a product that has to be experienced. In the conflict years of three decades, the National Carrier delivered the Sri Lanka experience consistently. Understandably, all other Airlines were foot lose collaborators responding to global and regional trends.

In positioning Sri Lanka as a competitive destination in global tourism, the role of the national carrier has been decisive. In its successive incarnations as Air Ceylon, Air Lanka and SriLankan Airlines, the flag carrier has been the linchpin that sustained the island as a tourism destination. In the process it has subsidized the travel of the tourist at the expense of the tax payer and the treasury. Should we continue to subsidize our visitors?

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    Sarath has highlighted a very valid point. Is it really worth to subsidize (by way of SriLankan Airlines operating loss making European routes) visitors especially from Europe?
    On the other hand the real beneficiaries of such loss making operation will be the Mafia Inbound operators in Sri Lanka.

    • 0
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      Etihard and other airlines work with a large group. They work with Air Berlin and several other airlines, Why not lanken airlines join anyone.

      Just being frogs in wells, to waste sums are not what we need right at the moment. Rajapakshes left vaccums – and higher interests. all these to be paid – lanken treasury should be very tactful by imposing Greek style asterity measures. Every cent can help to gear up the economy.
      Dr. Angela Merkel was iron hard in handling with Greeks since that is the way it should have been addressed. Lanken authorities should do the same with lankens issues if we want to raise it from the economic bankrupsy left by Medamulana Meeharaka. I am sorry, for the Meeharakas – I dont want to insult them this way but Medamulana people.

      • 1
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        Sri Lankan has no future in Europe.

        Make it a South and East Asian airline together with middle east.

        Best to stop tax payer money being advanced to run the airline.

    • 0
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      You know guys, I travel very often across EUrope. Mostly by German Wings, Airberlin, Austrial airways, Swiss air etc. Most of them are connected to a group of airlines. That is how eRUOPEANS partners work together. So, I have no doubt, that Srilanken could also join hand with an ailine in Middle east. That can bring both parties only profits. That is no means selling the airline to middle east. The kind of mentality should be thrown away from srilanken culture. CBK days, Srilanken brought profits as no other times before. It was all because of combined flights carried out to that time Emirates becoming a big partner. But these frogs made it an issue to turn the heats and minds of stupid folks fo rtheir political survival. In the end what happened was Emirates left saying never ever would join hand with the lanken NATIONLISTs. Consequence was by the term end of Jarapaskshe, over 28 Billions as loss. Bankrupsy as no other times before.

  • 2
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    SdA – Sri Lankan is a high cost carrier and cannot compete with the mega carriers you mention based in the straights of Hormuz and Malacca who have all the advantages of scope, scale, finance, expertise etc. Therefore one must question the clamour of hoteliers and others in the tourism industry to maintain this white elephant to merely place bums on beds. In my view, SL has no such obligation and if the prognosis is poor, it must be out of its misery asap instead of leaving it to future generations of Sri Lankans to carry. If Sri Lanka is a great destination of which I have no doubt, other carriers will beat a path here provided GOSL opens the skies.

  • 3
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    Totally agree with you.If the National carrier cannot run its affairs without being a heavy burden on tax Payer,why should it continue to operate.No visitor is choosing Sri Lanka as a destination just because we have a national carrier.If the Hoteliers are so worried of tourist arrivals in case SriLankan pulls out of Europe,let them bankroll the Airline then ?

  • 1
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    Sri Lanka Airlines has been running at a loss past many years.

    file:///C:/Users/dr.s/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Windows/INetCache/IE/5JWF61CG/SriLankan_Airlines_Annual_Report_2011_2012.pdf

    There have been many reports of corruption too.

    Do we need an airline like this one?

  • 3
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    National Carrier is no doubt a part and parcel of Tourism. But that does not mean it has to run on providing facilities to provide subsidies to the Tourist Industry. Air transportation is an “industry” by itself and has to be established and maintained to provide intended services in a competitive market to make a net return on the capital layout. Today, as people talk of economic down turn, in terms of “Growth”; yet the “Aviation Industry” is not lamenting in terms of that very factor of “Growth”. Most of the “Big Carriers” are making profits or to say the least have “turned around” and some are even boast of “recovery”. That is a “Possibility” and if any operator does not know “HOW TO DO THAT”; such people must not remain in the industry. In this regard, our National Carrier is one living example of that “DO NO KNOW” category; because for one and the only reason of NOT ADMITTING of its own short comings and RELUCTANCE to take corrective measures to put it on right track. That RELUCTANCE is also mainly due to the “People at The TOP’ who are nothing but “Square Pegs In Round Holes”. What a pity with an Aviation Industry history of nearly a century, we have FAILED to find COMPETENT and CAPABLE people to run this industry for the benefit of the country; but continues to be a Huge Burden on the Nation.

  • 5
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    Douglas,

    In few words you have simply stated the stark truth.However would it ever make any sense to those who are responsible ? Whilst in opposition the present rulers had lot to say about the Airline and how it is being mismanaged and once in power even promised to take a serious look to have matters remedied.Notwithstanding the rhetoric what actually took place was the opposite.

    If they were serious enough they should have started with appointment of a Board consisting Professionals who could make significant contribution rather than having Friends,political Donors and school associates been accommodated instead.If that was unavoidable at least then the appointments of CEO and CCO should have been done in the best interest of the Airline rather than of few Individuals.

    I am sure much will be written about the Airline in this Forum from time to time till either the readers will get sick of this subject or the final demise of the Airline.

  • 2
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    Well sir ! Subsidize everything / everyone!Subsidize paddy cultivators subsidize tea cultivators! Subsidize government servants (by incresing the salaries ) subsidize banks(who give loans on political request and had to write off ! Subsidize lanka sathosa !(one more time) CEB ! CPC !!!! And now Sri Lankan airlines ! *(Sir it seems I am the only one left who is not being subsidized !)how on earh we are goinng to subsidize all these people and institutions ?

    • 0
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      You sure have been speaking from your other orifice.

      Good luck. We have enough pundit of your kind that can only sabotage any good moves.

  • 1
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    Sri lankan can be run profitably like any other business can be. Unfortunately in this country it is not run as a business but as a ready made gift to supporters and friends who have no entrepreneurial ability.
    Much like every other Government institution.
    For decades we keep talking about loss making institutions run by sycophants, and nothing has been done about it, nothing will be.

  • 0
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    in my opinion subsidize is good as long as lots of other thing are attached and depend on that like tourism. But not for the life time and Srilankan Airline should show a growth and should have plan for like within this period we will be return to profit. So tax payers like us will not mind it by knowing that tax money we paid has been used properly.

  • 0
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    Srilankan Airline should think differently even at this stage.If Srilankan is not willing let the Srilanka government take the initiative. All Saarc Countries are suffering finacially because of their National carriers.It proves the Adage ” Pride goes before distruction.Is it necessary for every country to have a National Carrier. !
    I have a simple solution. Let all SAARC Countries get together and pool their resources and form one SAARC Airline.The modality of sharing profits could be discussed among the countries in a rational manner

  • 0
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    The Sri Lankan people do not deserve another millstone added to the already crippling debt inherited from the previous government. The debt should first be audited to see how much of it has gone into the pockets of the Rajapakses. On the matter of SriLankan Airlines an entrepreneur like Richard Branson should be coaxed into buying it (and its debt) for free. He has already proved his genius with Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Trains etc. which he built from scratch. Our airlines would give him new routes which he’ll appreciate and for us he’ll also promote the tourism exponentially. It’ll be a win, win situation and all it cost us is the prestige of having a State Airline that we could never afford or run profitably.

  • 0
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    Hand over Sri Lankan airlines to Bus Gemunu right now!!!
    He is sure to make a go of it.

  • 0
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    Sri Lankan should go back to be an AIRLINE and not take on all the other promotions that can be done cheaper, and more effectively, by other agencies.

    1 Appoint a CEO that understands the business, and has the necessary proven experience, and possesses a strong backbone..

    2 Recalibrate staff requirements to industry norms; Curb the excessive allowances and benefits. Get rid of ‘thunduwa’ staff and stop recruiting political appointees.

    3 STOP allowing the airline to be used a personal airline by government and politicians and hangers-on. They should pay full price, up front.

    Alas, all these simple suggestions will be called ‘untraditional’.

  • 0
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    I believe the current CEO has all those ingredients, he should be allowed to perform

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