Diversifying Ceylon Tea for more forex

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By Anjali Caldera

It is high time to diversify tourism products in Sri Lanka to sustain the industry in the post-Covid scenario, rather than promoting the same old historical sites, beaches, wildlife etc.

Or rather present the same attractions with innovative concepts based on different activities; experience-based other than just visiting these sites.

Tea tourism has been an age-old attraction in Sri Lanka Tourism; as in just tasting a Ceylon cup of tea at a so-called Tea Factory on the way to the hill country or just quenching the thirst during any tour. However, during recent times, this aspect has been developed to the level of providing accommodation; camping at tea estates, tea bungalows and organising tea trails as initiated by Dilmah Tea Company. Yet, as per the present requirement of sustaining the industry on the face of economic crisis in 

Sri Lanka; as the third forex generating industry and also as a response to the changing behaviour of global tourists, varying tea as a  tourist attraction would bring about a considerable number of tourists into the country. The potential of doing so is far higher as ‘Ceylon Tea’ is world renowned as one of the finest tea brands in the global market.

Potential to promote ‘Ceylon Tea’ 

Sri Lanka being the fourth largest tea producer of the world is recognised as the leader in global sustainable auction practices and in value added tea exports. The Sri Lanka Tea Board says that the country has earned approximately USD 1.3 billion from the export of 288 million kilos of tea in 2021. Though there has been a decline in the export revenue in 2021 than in 2020 which was Rs 230 billion (USD 1,213 million) with the export quantity of 266 Mn kilos, Ceylon Tea still remains at higher auction prices than Kenya (main tea competitor for Sri Lanka) and India. As can be seen, Ceylon Tea is the most expensive teas in the global market – gram to gram and as a result, there is a tipping point in the tea pricing structure for our tea exporters and marketers to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Besides, there has been a good reputation for Ceylon Tea since its origin; the records say that Sri Lanka became the world’s largest tea exporter for the first time in 1965; one million tea packets were sold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; the first International Tea Convention was held in Sri Lanka in 1966; Export of tea bags started in the same year after establishing Sri Lanka Tea Board in 1976; was the official supplier of tea at Moscow Summer Olympics Games in 1980 and at Commonwealth Games ,Brisbane in 1982 etc.

The Ceylon Tea brand is successfully established in the global market, so that separate marketing campaigns for the brand, is not necessary, but tea tourism should be presented international tourists as a different tourism product rather than just a cup of tea!

Issues must be identified

Prior to promoting tea as a tourism attraction, issues existing in the tea industry should be keenly addressed. Then extending the product as a tourism attraction will be quite easy and doable. 

Addressing the issues with tea plantations in the country, former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism and a well-known marketer, Rohantha Athukorala pointed out that Ceylon Tea has a problem with replanting which has led to the decline of tea production; “production capacity can come down to 40-50 per cent in the next five to seven years. This is due to no return on the investment made for tea plantation. Nearly, 60 per cent of the production cost goes for its labour; wages. The problem right now is with the wage of Rs 1,000 per day per person. This affects Regional Plantation Companies that they cannot even survive with such pricing strategies.”  So, it is clear, priority should be given to solve this problem and make sure that our tea plantations are viable.

Then, with regard to promoting tea tourism, Athukorala highlighted , the concern of the relevant parties should focus on the awareness of our brand to potential clients; thus an effective and practical marketing strategy should be  in place. Awareness for the brand for distinctive features of the product with a clear positioning is required; “We didn’t have a proper marketing plan for the last 10 years.60 million cups of tea are drunk every day which is all Ceylon Tea; but we are only trying to attract one million people into Sri Lanka in 2021,” he said.

Besides, Sri Lanka should develop new products. Presenting of new tourism attractions, activities and experiences are a very rare aspect in 

Sri Lanka Tourism. The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was launched in 1972 and nothing much has been introduced to the market since then. During recent times stakeholders focused on experience-based tourism and developed village trails, tea trails etc., yet that is not sufficient for a well-known tourist destination such as 

Sri Lanka. Tourist countries like Dubai launch new products every three years. So, why not Sri Lanka with its all resources?

Further, the authorities should also focus on conserving this resource and maintain its authenticity. The product should be limited to a particular niche segment, so that the tea industry does not have to face problems relating to handling of unnecessary carrying capacities which will damage the property sometimes. Thereby, it is required to develop an effective and implementable tea tourism planning strategy and guidelines to sell and save the property at the same time.

Tea as a tourism product

Capitalising the potential with tea with the nation’s hospitality; nation’s identity is a way forward to develop 

Sri Lanka tourism for more forex earings, says the tourism and hospitality management academic,  Prof Suranga Silva.

“Tea tourism must be a ritualistic tourism product; we should add more income, employment and value additions to it, presenting Ceylon Tea as an exclusive tourism product. Attention over creating an unforgettable traveller experience; tea as a green cultural heritage, beyond its cultivation is important in terms of differentiating the attraction,” he added.

Perhaps, combining tea with eco-tourism and community tourism based on its cultivation locations, wellness tourism based on its serenity and health concerns, etc., are some of his views in this regard. Hence, he emphasised that these activities may lead to experience- based tourism; the current trend of the global tourism market and have tendency to create a repeat customer base. 

Supporting the views presented by the Professor at a webinar on Tea Cultural Tourism conducted by the University of Colombo, Dilmah Tea MD and also Ceylon Tea Trails pioneer, Malik J Fernando indicated that tea tourism should go hand in hand as a package- with wildlife, culture, wellness, etc. 

Sri Lanka Tourism should not only be limited as a beach destination or a very routine tour with cultural triangle, beaches and national parks. He pointed out that, there have been a lot of developments recently with regard to tea as a tourism product with tea bungalows, tea hotels, tea factory visits and tea museum visits

Fernando was also keen to promote tea tourism, targeting the high-end traveller with the legacy of Ceylon Tea with its British origin, thus promote the product with low intensity (selected markets) and extend its attractions with the restoration of old bungalows in the upcountry, with tea experience, tea tasting methods as in tea in flavours, tea foods, tea cocktails, all in all, tea- based cuisine and activities in tea highlands as in trekking, mountain climbing and hiking. Thus, targeting a niche market segment; selected high end tourists/ high end adventure travellers and positioning the product, should be the concern of the authorities when promoting tea tourism which will in return generate a high yield of income to the Sri Lankan economy.

Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) Former Chairman, Kishu Gomes who also took part in the same webinar pointed out that industry cooperation is a key point to develop the tea tourism sector. There should be an equal partnership among tea industry stakeholders, no matter how small, medium or large scale it is and that is what Sri Lanka lacks. Particularly, where there are dominating parties and even the public-private partnership is not fruitful. Some stakeholders are deprived of industry opportunities and certain big players dominate the industry. Thus, it is required to bring all stakeholders together to discuss issues they are confronted with within the industry and when promoting tea as a tourism product. Hence, working within a common framework is required.

Quality of infrastructure facilities

Besides, the quality of infrastructure facilities matters to develop the sector; so that, access to tea tourism attractions, proper road conditions, sanitary facilities, cleanliness of the properties, and also conservation of these attractions should be priority concerns of responsible parties to create the target market and to sustain them. 

Concerning on easy access to tourist attractions, Gomes suggests; “Why not promote tea tourism in the vicinity of the Western Province where tea is also available. Especially in the Kalutara district (Mathugama, Horana areas) tea comes with a different flavour than what is offered in the up country.  Tea is also available in Down South, especially in Deniyaya and the countryside area where there is easy access with good road conditions and highways where a guest could find a different taste of tea which is not available in the upcountry. Sri Lanka Tourism should observe all these possible ways to develop the tea tourism sector in the country.

University of Sunshine Coast Australia, Professor of Tourism Management Sustainability Research Centre Noel Scott presented a different view on promoting tea tourism; it is not necessarily required to be only ‘tea’ to promote tea tourism. He suggested to use geographical locations where tea grows as a marketing tool where ‘Ceylon Tea’ will indirectly be promoted.

“Organise events; occasional mega events, regional events, local events, etc., in the vicinity of tea estates where people could also visit  a tea plantation, factory, museum or lodge and taste a cup of Ceylon Tea amidst their tour. This would be an effective marketing tool for the industry to survive during the off season or shoulder season. Also guests could enjoy the ‘wow experience’ with its climate, scenery and local communities.” 

Promoting tea tourism to domestic tourists

While capturing niche segments in the global tourist market, why not promote tea as a tourism product to domestic tourists? We are keenly aware that tea is the staple drink of almost all Sri Lankans, regardless of their social, economic and cultural backgrounds where at least once a day they consume a cup of tea. The potential to promote tea as a tourism product among locals lies there. Thus, Sri Lanka Tourism will be able to maintain a continuous visitor attraction and some sort of income generation with tea regardless of the ups and downs in the global tourism market which occur from time to time with political issues, pandemic situations, and natural disaster. 

The writer is a former Business Journalist attached to Ceylon Today, a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Kelaniya, SLIIT,SLF, a Freelance Writer and a Sworn Translator. (B.A & M.A in Linguistics at the University of Kelaniya, and a Postgraduate in Tourism at the University of Colombo).