For quite some time now, there have been fleeting references to wellness tourism by a variety of stakeholders, but it has always remained overshadowed by the mainstream segments preoccupied with the demand to realise the vast potential that Sri Lanka tourism has always promised to offer.
So, wellness was for long was largely confined to an indigenous occupation by the principal Ayurveda practitioners and the tourism resorts catering to an essentially foreign clientele. Other than that, a whole raft of Ayurveda clones contrive to dismember the noble reputation of an age-old medicine system that comes to us from ancient times.
Sri Lanka at first glance appears to be a natural wellness tourism destination and there it stops! The Sri Lanka Tourism Authority itself encumbered by its priority interests has not shown a fondness for the wellness product except to let Ayurveda resorts evolve in the peripherals, until a marked surge of awareness has arisen since of late by the incumbent administration.
Interestingly, it was the EDB which pioneered what may one day become a fully-fledged wellness tourism industry in the future. It was an ITC study that made the recommendation to include wellness tourism as a primary sector in the National Export Strategy that was formulated and received Cabinet approval in 2018.
It must be noted that it was also the EDB that nurtured Ayurveda as an export commodity as far back as 2013; it is indeed fortuitous that Ayurveda has morphed into what is now referred to as the wellness tourism sector with State patronage.
The EDB assiduously developed a cohesive plan of action for wellness tourism that linked the Western medical and the indigenous Ayurveda sectors in one homogenous wellness paradigm, bringing together practitioners from both disciplines to forge an identity for Sri Lanka as a premier wellness tourism destination.
While the Department of Ayurveda was engaged from the very beginning to establish an authentic legislative framework and concentrate its energies on product development and treatment methodologies, and the lead Western medical institutions were expected to focus on what specific services could be best promoted overseas, EDB took the bold initiative of initiating an international research to identify what markets and segments would be most lucrative for the fledgling Tourism portfolio.
It was not surprising that they chose to zoom in on the Western European markets which had traditionally favoured Sri Lanka as a holiday destination as well as an exotic source of indigenous medicine or Ayurveda.
It is with that thought that they chose to work with the Linser Hospitality Institute, a specialist wellness consultancy based in Innsbruck, Austria. Linser Hospitality was tasked to study the market potential in Greater Europe and help Sri Lanka agencies understand and implement brand positions that should be adopted to address these primary markets.
It is to the credit of EDB that they were able to obtain the assistance of MDF and the EUD who helped fund the Linser Hospitality study over several months in 2019. The results of these studies were published in June 2020 and offered by the EUD to both the EDB and Sri Lanka Tourism Authority (SLTDA).
Enter Sri Lanka Tourism
Perhaps, it was timely that Sri Lanka Tourism showed a strong interest in acquiring for itself the custodian status of wellness tourism and has since then assumed the role of the principal Government agency in taking this initiative forward. They have consciously replaced the EDB and boldly undertaken the responsibility of promoting wellness tourism in overseas markets as well as spearhead the task of capacity building and the essential brand development that will cater to overseas markets.
It is thus incumbent on the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority to forge the development of this sector, alongside its multifarious activities. Indeed, it is extremely important that SLT gets its act together because it must at all costs avoid the sins of the past and eventually position the Sri Lanka wellness tourism brand very carefully in its global markets.
There is no doubt that it will require a whole new regime at SLT for this extraordinary purpose. The Sri Lanka tourism sector is brimming with talent. But vanity alone will not be sufficient. We must refocus and draw the most diehard patrons for this ambitious plan. This new foothold will need creative visionaries, product development specialists, global distribution experts, entrepreneurial investors, new category seekers (sleep therapy, reproduction labs), targeted visitor groups, excellent travel connections, efficient airport procedures, pleasant greeting programs, smooth internal transfers, exciting far flung locations and authentic genteel services.
In other words, it must plan to overturn the regional competition. It must outperform the fatigued hotspots of Bali, Pattaya, Koh Samui and Kerala and bring to bear its own unique biodiversity and the myriad of attributes to offer what no other destination can do so easily!
Wellness is the icing on the tourism cake
Wellness is the icing on the tourism cake. It produces a yield that is at least five times higher than the standard tourist index. And so it must deliver. Destination authenticity and internal security are paramount.
Unlike the average tourist, the wellness traveller is discriminate and demands better service for which it willingly pays. Our locations must be pristine. They must offer privacy and purity in a natural sense that our beautiful landscapes can provide and project seamlessly.
COVID has in a surreptitious way propelled the health and wellness story to the top-of-mind of most Western travellers and tourists at large. So, it is a moment in time that we must capture. Sri Lanka must be the next tourism frontier waiting to be conquered. Sri Lanka can. It must demonstrate that will.
[The writer is the President of the Sri Lanka Wellness Tourism Association (SLWTA). He runs a boutique management consultancy that includes wellness tourism in its portfolio. Having had more than a fleeting involvement in the fields of tourism and hospitality over several years, Trevor is well endowed to take the lead in promoting this relatively new sector, even as Sri Lanka Tourism emerges from a rampant COVID-laden international downturn. The thoughts expressed in this essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of SLWTA.)