By 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.’
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 SriLankan airlines has withdrawn from Rome but continues its operations to Paris, Frankfurt and London.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?