Tourism – Souvenirs; a way forward for sustainable growth

By Anjali Caldera | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021
FT Tourism – Souvenirs; a way forward for sustainable growth

By Anjali Caldera

Mementos usually represent the tangible aspect of travel experience. Thus, a tourist who travels to any country in the world or a domestic tourist who travels to anyplace within his or her country, tends to buy a souvenir of the place visited.

Karu Arts (PVT) LTD, a leading name in the wood carving souvenir industry in Sri Lanka, Director Navodhi Karunarathna; talking with the writer about souvenir trends, says “Souvenirs consist of a unique emotional value that symbolises a relation between people, moments, feelings, locations or situations perhaps something with which someone can consciously evoke memories.”

Hence, it is evident that souvenirs are one of the major categories of tourists’ expenditure, representing a significant source of income for national economies; thus leading towards the sustainable development of both industries; tourism and souvenir. 

Further, the industry directly connects with the local societies of woodcarving, metal carving, apparels, stone carving, etc. leading the country to accomplish the Global Sustainable Development Goal number 1: No poverty and Goal number 10: reducing inequalities , Goal number 12: responsible consumption and production, etc.

What does Sri Lanka have to offer?

Sri Lanka souvenirs vary as in carvings, gem and jewellery, clay products, tea, spices, garments, cane products, antiques, etc. Some types of souvenirs are more in demand than others; they include tea packs, gems and jewellery, cinnamon sticks and spices, wood carvings  and masks, batik and garments, Laksha, stone carvings, clay and porcelain, Dumbara Mats and cane, paintings, brass and antiques, sweets and food.

Traditional clothing as souvenirs

Sri Lanka’s traditional clothing consists of jacket and piece of cloth (Redda and Hatte) or Kandyan sari (Osariya) for women and sarong or national suit for men. It’s a common sight to see foreign travellers wear saree and attend tea plucking in upcountry; a traditional practice promoting for tourists by the local tour operators and travel agents. There is a good market for handloom clothing as well.

Gem and jewellery

Sri Lanka is world renowned for its sapphires and moonstones. Some are mined in Ratnapura, in the Southeast of the country, while others are imported. ‘Facets’ is the annual gem and jewellery exhibition in Sri Lanka which draws the attention of world famous businessmen and influential trade visitors. The exhibition is a considerable source of foreign income generation to the national economy.

Moonstone carvings

Small moonstone carvings are now made into souvenirs for tourists and can be found in limestone or wood, in a range of sizes, especially near Buddhist and Hindu temples.  Other stone carvings include Buddha statues, statues of gods and goddesses, animal figures, etc.

Wood carvings

Wood carvings are a very common type of artefact which dates back to ancient times. Exquisite piece of art on a rough wood, no doubt represents the unique skill and ability of the local craftsmen. Wooden Buddha statues, animal figures, Raksha Masks are among common souvenirs in wood souvenir shops around the country.


Spices can be found in all Sri Lankan food, to the point where a good rice and curry could have more than eight spices in it. The best places to buy these flavour sensations are the local markets. Additionally, tours in spice gardens especially in Mathale, Sigiriya, etc. are a common addition in tour itineraries at present.


Ceylon Tea is world renowned for its unique taste. Tea leaves now packed in beautiful containers of steel and wood taking the shape of Sri Lankan maps; boxes, tins, etc. with some sort of Sri Lankan identity compels the traveller to keep the container as a memento even after all tea bags/leaves in the container have been used.

Global trend

Global personalised gifts industry’s value was USD 25.8 billion in 2020. The “Global Gifts Novelty and Souvenirs Market 2021-2025” report presented by Globe Newswire in May this year , says that gifts novelty and souvenirs market is poised to grow by USD 11.88 billion during 2021-2025, progressing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of over three per cent during the forecast period. 

This global positive perspective on buying souvenirs as a memento of the travel experience indicates that there’s a good market demand to upgrade or develop the local souvenir industry.

Karunarathna stated that the growing culture of gifting and increasing demand for seasonal decorations, innovative gifting solutions and advancements in technology and expanding online retail, kiosks, and online distribution channels were the main factors behind changing global souvenir trends.

Moreover, according to an article published on Sri Lanka’s Hoteliers’ Magazine  on ‘Exploring the best practices on souvenir industry’ several countries stand out with their exclusive best practices on souvenirs for tourism. Bhutan promotes local products for sustainability (Thimphu Weekend Market); Japan being an innovative role model presents 3D customised souvenir printing; India sells destination based replicas while Dubai maintains a unique selling proposition with luxury branding. Further, Bali is famous for wood carvings in mass scale, Vietnam presents recycled souvenirs with a go green concept, Australia presents the Quarantine certificate while Hong Kong presents retirement souvenir scheme and Malaysia presents Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for gift enquiry of the tourist.

The article further emphasised that visual merchandising souvenirs in Europe has been in demand, less is more at the showrooms, the rule of three items for the display and  pyramid principle for storing for the eye-catching display enhancement. 

Plight of souvenir industry in Sri Lanka 

The sudden collapse of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka on the face of Easter Sunday attack in 2019 and COVID-19, affected its depending industries including the souvenir industry.

Referring to wood carving industry Karu Arts Director said, “Most of the wood craftsmen are struggling for survival and are in disappointment about their career.” 

Besides, it seems taking the industry to the next generation is a much of a challenge with their juniors turning towards other sources of income and seniors being more attentive in providing a good school education to their children than industry knowledge which was passed over to them by their ancestors.

Karunarathna pointed out the predicament market problem and raw material accessibility problem followed by permit issues are also some challenges faced by wood carving communities in Sri Lanka.

Further, the lack of attention towards the souvenir industry and lack of orientation of the craftsmen for sustainable best practices is also a week point in Sri Lanka Tourism.

Actions to be taken

The spokesperson presented a few strategies to be followed for the sustainable development of the souvenir industry with special reference to her own industry; wood carvings. According to her, as for the very first step to be taken, she emphasised, the relevant authorities should concern on forming a proper code of ethics for the Sri Lankan souvenir industry as in a quarantine certificate like standardised regulations on pricing and commissions with the support of the Local Governments.

Sri Lanka Tourism lacks proper marketing strategies and strategic promotional campaigns to promote the destination. Proper promotional campaigns required to be launched to draw the attraction of every tourist to purchase replicas at each prominent tourist destination.

It is also a fact that active participation of tourists in particular activities is lacking in Sri Lanka Tourism unless it is for cookery demo or taking part in cultural dances etc. Accordingly, Karunarathna also emphasised that ‘experience based souvenirs’ where tourists can create their own personalised souvenirs is an innovative strategy to draw the attention of both the local and foreign tourists towards Sri Lanka souvenirs. As an add on to the same strategy ‘souvenir trials’ could be organised; promoting souvenir villages and training centres, quality assurance for souvenirs, awards for best innovations and skills etc.

An award system should also be established annually to encourage souvenir production communities in Sri Lanka; hence it could contribute to the sustainable development of the industry. It is important to note that a holistic approach should be taken with regard to souvenir display enhancement; while approvals to be provided by the Government and local authorities in the area and get the financial support from private industry stake holders; hoteliers, tour operators, travel agents, transport service providers, restaurants, etc. through public and private partnership.

Perhaps, proper training campaigns should be conducted to all souvenir communities with especial attention towards ‘best practices’ in souvenir industry as in innovations, quality enhancement, marketing and promotions to create complete awareness on the industry.

The spokesperson pointed out the necessity of launching a souvenir museum at the arrival lounge of airports and ports, offering souvenir guide documents with tourist activities involved and available souvenirs, etc.

“Overall the key factors affecting to determine the success of sustainable wood carving souvenir product promotion in Sri Lanka tourism could be effectuated as; Government and authority involvement and support, sustainable best practices, marketing and promotional strategies, fair value for the real craftsmanship, market regulation and expansion, sustainable sources of raw material and permits, collaborative actions of all stakeholders, empowerment of the craftsmen (encouragement and recognition).” 

With reference to the wood carving industry, she also recommended the strong government involvement for the resilience and the recovery of the wood carving souvenir industry of Sri Lanka, while establishing a sustainable market for the wood carving souvenir craftsmen. 

Further, she also emphasised the importance of introducing a mechanism for the wood raw material accessibility and wood transportation by reducing complex permit formalities for the craftsmen, highlighting the Government’s active involvement is essential to overcome challenges in the industry.

It seems boosting potential visitor arrivals via authentic wood carving souvenir industry promotions through International Trade fairs, NTO’s sites, etc. is also important. “Setting up a special financial support scheme for the wood carving souvenir community, launching of an islandwide replantation project towards wood carving souvenir industry, developing an industry specific research and development unit,” she added to the writer’s view. 

She further acknowledged the importance of conducting a training workshop on digital presence of marketing and promotional strategies, on occupational safety and health, and awareness programmes on the sustainable best practices in wood carving souvenir industry and forming an association to represent the wood carving souvenir industry in the country are strategic actions to be taken with private and public partnerships for the sustainability of the industry.

The writer is a former Business Journalist attached to Ceylon Today, a visiting lecturer at University of Kelaniya, SLIIT, SLF, a freelance writer and a sworn translator. (B.A and M.A in Linguistics at University of Kelaniya and a Postgraduate in Tourism at University of Colombo)

By Anjali Caldera | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021

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