She is a lady who everyone wants to sit and have a chat with. She has an impeccable sense of style, an impenetrable air of confidence and understands the demands of the sector she works in. Once a lawyer, then a banker, a sportwoman and today, chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Kimarli Fernando speaks to Lanka Courier this month of the setbacks as well as new strategies.
When you took over the bureau, what was your vision for Sri Lanka tourism in general?
The Sri Lanka Tourism product is full of untapped potential. My vision for the sector is to position the destination by differentiating our offering, develop new markets and increase the tourist spend per day. It is also my vision to ensure that all stakeholders in the sector are enabled to reap the benefits of a thriving sector. The global traveller is now seeking experiential travel and they are moving away from organized tours and regimented travel. In order to support this trend, it is paramount to ensure that the SME sector is encouraged, trained and guided. I believe that in order for a destination to grow and attract the desired yields, the growth needs to be inclusive. Our strategy is to build an inclusive, sustainable industry and ensure that Sri Lanka Tourism is finally highlighted for the product that we offer.
In your opinion, as someone who has travelled widely, what makes Sri Lanka unique apart from is natural endowments or friendly people?
Sri Lanka was predominately promoted for its sun, sand and sea offering and while we will still continue to promote this area we are strategically looking at promoting everything else Sri Lanka has to offer. Our water-based activities, tea tourism which includes the hill country experience, wellness tourism, culture, heritage, cuisine, ancient traditions, national parks and wild life and our people are all differentiating factors. The fact that a traveller can experience all this in one compact island is unique, and this cannot be found anywhere else in the World.
There are many in the informal tourism sector who are struggling today, some who may have lost their livelihood. What would you tell them?
We are very conscious about our stakeholders who are currently facing challenging times. We are focused on getting our tourism sector personnel vaccinated and have sought the assistance of the Health Ministry to assist us with the vaccination drive in order to ensure that Sri Lanka Tourism can confidently welcome tourists back to the Island. We have over 3 million people involved directly or indirectly in the tourism sector and we are strategically working with authorities and industry experts to ensure that we are positioned well to attract tourists back in order to ensuring the livelihoods of these individuals are secured.
In addition, we are looking at providing further training to certain sectors within the industry to ensure that when Sri Lanka Tourism is ready to bounce back they are equipped with all the essential tools to reap benefits. We have recently partnered with Australian Government funded Skills for Inclusive Growth who will be providing training and coaching to the stakeholders as part of a pilot project with a key focus on women in hospitality. The percentage of women in hospitality in the Country is below industry average due to the social stigmas attached, we are looking at ways in which to encourage women to join the industry and train them in areas which will support the demands of the post Covid traveller; this is anticipated to be more experience based.
How is Sri Lanka going to rebound? What is your plan?
Sri Lanka is perfectly positioned to attract the post COVID traveller with its wide-open spaces and a multitude of nature-based experiences. We are currently in the process of launching a 5-year Global Communications campaign. Sri Lanka Tourism has true potential to attract the experiential traveller and I believe that with the launch of the integrated global communication campaign we will be able to highlight to the world the treasure trove of adventures Sri Lanka has in store for them.
We understand that it is also important to raise the bar of the service standards in the industry, some feel that service is merely a friendly smile however if we are to attract the high end traveller we need to ensure that we understand what service really entails. The ability to anticipate what a guest desires without them having to request for it and learning the art of observing guests and choosing instances to over deliver on a service promise will really differentiate our product. In order to ensure that our hospitality training is in line with our strategy we have engaged with Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne Advisory Services to conduct a gap analysis of the current hospitality educational offering with the goal of being in par or above the global standards.
We recognise that Wellness Tourism is a growing market with huge potential and we are working to position the Island to cater to the demand of this high yielding segment. With the assistance of external experts, we are focusing on product and infrastructure development, training and guidance to the SME sector and the larger industry, targeted marketing and promoting investor opportunities.
In addition to the Wellness Tourism segment, we are also focused on developing the Film Tourism market. Sri Lanka was growing in popularity in this segment with international producers and as such we have developed a Single Window Approval scheme to further facilitate growth in this segment.
All of us have good and bad days. It just seems to me like you are going through an awfully long bad day. The last 1 1/2 years to-today has not been easy. Does it make you feel apprehensive, all of this uncertainty?
I choose to not look at it in that way. Yes, it has been a challenging time however I believe that with challenges comes room to explore new opportunities, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have recognised and acknowledged that in the context of global tourism, there will continue to be a huge shift in the way we do business. We are currently studying these trends and strategising on how we can identify new markets and further develop existing ones. We remain focused on adapting to the new norms and use the challenges as opportunities to grow Sri Lanka Tourism.
What is your philosophy in life? What do you live by?
I always do the right thing and stand my principles. I take every role I play very seriously and do my best to ensure that I leave a lasting positive impact.
What are you most proud of?
My achievements in sports and the lessons I learnt through my experiences as a sportswoman. It really molded me into the person that I am today, my ability to believe in myself is one of the most valuable lessons I learnt. With determination, perseverance and self-discipline one can achieve anything you set out to do.
What do you regret the most?
Whilst I was studying in the UK for 6 years and later on working in Germany and Singapore I received University offers to the USA which I declined. I regret not taking any of the offers up, it would have given me a different perspective and further opportunities if I had that experience as well.
You went from being a lawyer, to a banker and now chairperson. Three different jobs, sectors, roles. How do you adapt yourself to be able to deliver the best you can in each?
I have had the opportunity to work in different sectors and roles and I believe that my ability and willingness to learn from my experiences and then apply that learning successfully in new situations by acquiring the necessary skills has made the transitions less challenging. The key is to be agile and be open to change.
You recently shared images of article clippings of yourself as a younger swimmer. Would you liked to have continued as a sportswoman and not a career woman?
I achieved my goals as a sportswoman and enjoyed that period of my life very much. I firmly believe that the lessons learnt playing a sport and being part of a sporting team contribute immensely in shaping one’s personality and it definitely had a positive impact on my career.
When you look back at those images, why does it make you smile?
It was a very fun and care free period in my life, the friendships that I made and lessons I learnt have been with me throughout my life. These are moments that money really cannot buy and I am forever grateful for the memories.