Improving Tourism in Sri Lanka Through Domestic Aviation – The Problem Of A De-Linked System

The government could concentrate more on infrastructure development and improvements in airport infrastructure development including passenger terminals, runways, and facilities.

7 mins read
Nine Arch Bridge - Ella, Sri Lanka [ Photo Credit: @rauljichici]

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” ~ Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

The Issue

The Government of Sri Lanka, under Extraordinary Gazette No. 2289/43 dated 22nd July 2022, established the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Aviation.  The Ministry’s website says: “  [T]he main objective of establishing the Ministry is to assist in the formulation of policies in relation to the subject of Ports, Shipping and Aviation under the direction and guidance of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation in conformity with the prescribed Laws, Acts and Ordinances and implementing, monitoring and evaluating subjects and functions of the institutions which are under the purview of the Ministry”.  The Mission of the Ministry is “To make air transport services efficient, safe, and user-friendly with a view to improve (sic) the efficiency of the relevant economic sectors.” Its Vision is to “Position Sri Lanka as the leading air transport hub in the region.”

On the face of it everything about this text is air transport centric with a  direction towards making Sri Lanka a “hub” that would seemingly link to “spokes” under a hub and spoke system where Sri Lanka would be a glorified way port for passengers destined for other countries. 

To further validate this ambivalence,  Sri Lanka’s National Civil Aviation Policy – which is based on the Civil Aviation Act No. 14 of 2010 –  is implemented by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) and focuses on developing and regulating the civil aviation industry in the country while ensuring safety, security, and sustainability.  There seems to be no mention of promoting tourism (either foreign or domestic) in these texts.

This  Policy is anchored on the fundamental philosophy of air law pertaining to the inviolability of State sovereignty articulated by the Policy in somewhat strange terms   – that “airspace above Sri Lanka is a valued national asset with vast potential for economic development and social integration” – and optimal use of this airspace would enhance the country’s economy.  Strangely, the Policy sustains the principle that Sri Lanka’s position as a leading aviation and transport hub in the South Asian region is preeminent, thus making the prospect of linking air transport and tourism within the country an improbability.

This is intriguing to say the least and sounds strange where the main economic sectors of the country are tourism, tea export, apparel, textile, rice production and other agricultural product. Trading Economics records that  the number of foreign tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka climbed 175.8% year-on-year to 83,309 in May 2023, more than doubling from a 67.5% rise in the previous month. Among main source markets, India (28%) accounted for the largest share of tourist visits, followed by Russia (9%), and Germany (8%). On a monthly basis, tourist arrivals declined 21.03%. Considering the first five months of the year, the number of foreign tourist arrivals rose 38.9% from the same period in 2021 to 524,486.

This is mainly through air transport, yet no mention is made of tourism in the mission and vision statements.  Ruwan Ranasinghe and M.G.P Sugandhika in an article titled The Contribution of Tourism Income for the Economic Growth of Sri Lanka published in 2018 say: “ Tourism income is one of the important segments that contribute to the Sri Lankan economy. Recent trends of Sri Lankan Gross Domestic Production (GDP) shows a significant role which played by the service sector indicating over 60 percent contribution”.

The Ministry of Tourism in Sri Lanka stands alone, established under the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2187/27, dated 09th August 2020, as amended by the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2196/27, dated 06th October, 2020.   Its overall objective is to “strengthen the tourism industry as a high foreign exchange, income, employment and livelihood generating sector and thereby making Sri Lanka an attractive tourist destination highlighting Sri Lankan culture, biodiversity, eco friendliness and the friendly identity of the people are among the main objectives of the establishment of a dedicated Ministry in charge of the subject of tourism”.

The Tourism Ministry works toward making Sri Lanka the world’s finest island for memorable, authentic and diverse experiences with the long term vision of .achieving the status of making the country “a high- value destination offering extraordinary experiences that reflect Sri Lanka’s natural and cultural heritage are socially inclusive and environmentally responsible and provide economic benefits to Communities and the country, while sustaining the flora and fauna”.

Rudyard Kipling indeed!

Some Examples of Linkage

Several countries directly link air transport and tourism while other countries establish a clear influence exerted by air transport on tourism in their territories. For example, Mauritius has  the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, intertwining air transport and tourism to create a sustained synergy between the two industries that promote  the country’s economic growth.  The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is another direct example which has the Ministry of Economy, which includes the Department of Civil Aviation and the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. This integrated approach brings to bear  the country’s focus on aviation and tourism as key sectors for economic development. The Maldives has the two industries encompassed in one ministry – Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, which incorporates tourism-related aspects within its purview. Given that tourism is a vital industry for the Maldives (which, as discussed above is the same for  Sri Lanka) , The country’s policy is  closely linked to tourism and air transportation.

Cyprus has the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and Works, which includes the Department of Civil Aviation. The department is responsible for aviation as well as tourism-related matters. Nepal is another example which has the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation, encapsulating all aspects of tourism, including aviation-related matters. This integrated ministry demonstrates the country’s recognition of the close relationship between tourism and aviation.

Larger countries too have linked air transport with tourism.  For example, the United States has the largest domestic air transport system in the world with numerous airlines offering services to various cities and tourist destinations. Of relevance to the topic under discussion in this article is that the United States promotes tourism through domestic aviation by offering affordable airfares, special packages, and marketing campaigns to encourage domestic travelers to explore different states and attractions within the country. China has a large domestic market for tourism, and the government actively promotes domestic aviation to boost tourism within the country through an extensive network of domestic flights connecting major cities and tourist destinations. There is substantial investment in China in infrastructure development and reckonable support for airlines, enabling them  to provide affordable airfares and tour packages.

Although admittedly these are countries with vast areas of land, it is noteworthy that the link between air transport and tourism has been recognized by these countries as being critical to their economies. Another two significant examples of this economic vision lie in Australia and India where the former – a vast territory – with diverse landscapes and attractions, promotes domestic tourism with vigor through an extensive domestic air transport  network that connects major cities and popular tourist destinations. Similar to the approach taken by the United States, the Australian government supports the industry by providing subsidies and incentives to airlines, and tourism campaigns encourage Australians to explore their own country.

Sri Lanka’s neighbor to the North – India – has a burgeoning domestic air transport sector, with several airlines offering flights to various cities and tourist hotspots. The government of India promotes domestic tourism through initiatives like “Incredible India” campaigns and by partnering with airlines to offer discounted fares and tour packages to domestic travelers. Other countries which are following the same linked approach are Brazil, Japan, and New Zealand. New Zealand is heavily reliant on tourism, and domestic aviation plays a crucial role in promoting travel within the country. Domestic airlines connect major cities and remote destinations, allowing tourists to explore the stunning landscapes and attractions. Brazil constantly develops air connectivity domestically to showcase its many attractions and Japan has a well-developed domestic aviation network that connects major cities and tourist destinations across the country. The government promotes domestic tourism by partnering with airlines to offer discounted fares, travel packages, and promoting regional attractions through campaigns like “Discover the Real Japan.”

Canada has also to be mentioned under this approach where domestic aviation is quite prolific throughout its vast and diverse landscape connecting  major cities, remote regions, and popular tourist destinations. The government promotes domestic tourism by partnering with airlines, offering subsidies, and encouraging Canadians to explore their own country through campaigns like “Canada. Explore Like a Local.” 

Points for Consideration

Sri Lankan regulators may wish to consider whether isolating air transport  policy, function and vision from a crucial income earner such s tourism is sustainable. Crucial to this conversation is the wisdom of the “hub and spoke” philosophy.

There are many workable measures that regulators in Sri Lanka could consider to link air transport (both international and domestic) with tourism. The first step would be for there to be in place an environment for airlines to work closely with aviation authorities to address any regulatory challenges or restrictions that may hinder tourism growth. This would go hand in hand towards  encouraging  dialogue and cooperation to create a favorable environment for air transport and tourism development. The second would be to enhance air connectivity by increasing the number of direct flights and routes between popular tourist destinations. This can be done by encouraging airlines to operate more flights or by attracting new airlines to enter the market. Collaborating with travel agents, tourism entities and airlines is also vital where  special travel packages can be introduced through collaborative  efforts involving discounted fares, bundled tour packages, and other incentives to attract tourists

Marketing and advertising campaigns targeting potential tourists, highlighting the unique attractions and experiences offered by the destination could be developed through channels such as print, digital media, social media, and travel websites to reach a wider audience. Immigration processes such as the issuance of visas could be streamlined and facilitated.  Unnecessary bureaucracy could be obviated.

The government could concentrate more on infrastructure development and improvements in airport infrastructure development including passenger terminals, runways, and facilities. Enhancements and investment in such goals as efficient customs and immigration procedures, comfortable lounges, and seamless baggage handling would contribute to a positive travel experience and encourage repeat visits. The Government should offer incentives or tax breaks to airlines or tour operators that promote tourism through air transport. These incentives can encourage airlines to increase flights or expand their operations to the destination. The air transport industry should collaborate more closely with the tourism and hospitality industry to produce a composite and satisfying travel experience from international departure to domestic tourism. 

In all this exercise, sustainable tourism practices through such initiatives as  eco-friendly facilities and services,  conservation efforts, and community engagement to attract environmentally conscious tourists who seek destinations that prioritize sustainability are important.

Apart from linking tourism with air transport both internationally and domestically which would be for the benefit to the country’s economy, the last mentioned factor would also protect the people and the country’s environment.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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