Uncovering Sri Lanka Tourism’s Potential for Greatness

Interview with Miguel Cunat, Tourism and Sustainability Consultant

Miguel Cunat fell in love with Sri Lanka when he first visited as a tourist, and was thrilled at the prospect of moving to the island with his family in 2003. Uprooting their lives and moving to a foreign land was slightly daunting, especially as Miguel had to give up a successful career in IT and web development and now needed to start afresh. However, taking the time to travel around the island, spending time with the people and discovering all the beautiful aspects of life in Sri Lanka birthed an idea in his mind - an idea that would take him down a path traversed by many in his family back in Spain.

Tourism seemed to be his calling in Sri Lanka, and he was excited about the opportunity to contribute and make a difference, drawing from his experiences as a traveller and the insights gained through his family’s tourism businesses in Spain. During his time in Sri Lanka, Miguel has co-founded several innovative specialist tourism businesses - a destination management company named ‘Sri Lanka in Style’ and a consulting company named ‘Sustainable Sri Lanka’, which is committed to helping the Sri Lankan tourism industry comply with international sustainability standards.

“I may have initially come to Sri Lanka as a foreigner, but I have now experienced the transitions this country has been through, the challenges it has faced, and seen how the nation and its people have overcome. I clearly see the potential Sri Lanka has, especially in tourism, and that is why I decided to stay back and contribute towards building something great here,” says Miguel.

Our discussion with Miguel was enlightening and inspiring! Outlined below are some of the key points we explored regarding the current status of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector and its potential to transform into something more purposeful.

From Mass Tourism to a Value Driven Industry

Sri Lanka’s civil war took place from 1983 to 2009, and the war years were difficult in many ways. From a tourism perspective, many countries had issued travel advisories and discouraged citizens from travelling to the island for non-essential reasons.

“When I arrived in Sri Lanka in 2003, I realised that a number of operators were developing luxurious boutique hotels around the country,” says Miguel. “The narrative that the industry seemed to be pushing to the world was that Sri Lanka had a world-class tourism product built around the island’s abundant natural resources and supported by wonderful boutique hotels. But the conflict situation and the restrictions around it didn’t help matters.”

As Miguel points out, the traveller visiting the country during the war was a pioneer consumer - an early adopter. It was not the regular traveller who was out there ticking off a bucket list. However, when the war ended, the early adopters gave way to the early majority and late majority consumers, and that was the beginning of Sri Lanka’s appeal as a mass tourism destination. While a mass approach may have seemed lucrative and promising in the short term, the long-term consequences of the approach soon began to manifest and be noticed by the more discerning industry players.

“The period between the end of the war and the onset of Covid-19 gave us a glimpse into what mass tourism is really like. We began to see the effects of over tourism and the long-term impact on our natural assets. Businesses were booming, people were investing in building more properties, but little to no attention was being paid to sustainability. The complete focus seemed to be on making money and growing,” comments Miguel.

The pandemic and the strict travel restrictions it imposed on the world has reset the clock. People are cautious about travelling, not just to Sri Lanka, but anywhere else as well. For Sri Lanka particularly, it almost seems like we have gone back to a time when we once again will have early adopters visiting the country.

Sharing his thoughts on this, Miguel says, “I think it is important to look at this respite as a second chance for Sri Lanka’s tourism sector. We have been given an opportunity to look back on the last 10-15 years, to understand the dynamics and look forward and think about what we really want tourism to look like for the country. We need to decide how we want to emerge from this crisis now – how to be more resilient – but also more sustainable. I believe that now a vast majority of the sector agrees on that. It is the implementation that is the challenge.”

Taking on the Challenge

The core fundamentals of sustainable tourism development have become firmly established in more recent years. So, the challenge is no more a case of identifying or convincing businesses about the importance of sustainable development, but rather implementing standards in a strategic manner.

Commenting on this, Miguel explains that “The travel and hospitality sector consists of many types of organizations and individuals - you have large corporates, individually owned hotels, guest houses, small hotels and restaurants. For the bigger companies, the challenge is to avoid greenwashing. With the resources they have at hand, they will be the first to get certified and create narratives around sustainability, but they have to be genuine.”

“It’s a different story for the smaller businesses. Some of them may have already been operating sustainably because it is part of their business model, but there’s a lot more work to be done there. With businesses that cannot afford a ‘sustainability coordinator’ or a marketing team to create a fantastic narrative around their sustainability efforts, it is harder to get the message out, to get the people involved. A lot of grassroot level work needs to take place for these operators to understand standards, identify what they can do better, and ensure customers who come to Sri Lanka experience the country in a sustainable manner.

Miguel also points out that the government needs to be deeply involved in sustainability, as much of the regulations and mandatory implementations can only be imposed by government authorities.

How Can Communities Contribute?

On a global level, there is a definite increase in demand for experiences that involve more contact with nature, with small communities, with rural settings. In order to cater to this growing demand, local tourism operators need to not only understand traveller expectations, but also value the authentic experiences that are available in the country. It is not about copying an experience or product that is being offered elsewhere in the region, but about identifying and seeing the potential in the unique aspects of our culture, heritage and local way of life from a tourism perspective.

“I think the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions on international travel have forced Sri Lankans to explore their country far more than they may normally do. We see that more folk from Colombo have been travelling around the country, discovering new places, interacting with communities, engaging in different ways, and most importantly recognizing the value of what we have here on the island. And this is important because these are the authority figures whose decision-making will have a long-term impact on all these areas,” states Miguel.

“I believe that their exposure to all the wonderful aspects of this county will inspire them to create more meaningful and purposeful tourism products and experiences, to make better informed decisions with regard to policies and regulations, and to see the desperate need to protect and conserve what we have here in Sri Lanka. I really do hope we make the most of this second opportunity we have been given to get things right and that we set the foundation for a future that fulfils Sri Lanka’s potential.”

Uncovering Sri Lanka Tourism’s Potential for Greatness