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March 22, 2009

ASIAN ALTERNATIVE:Sri Lanka makes a strong push for meetings business

With the conflict that has troubled the country for many years subsiding, Sri Lanka is keen to convince the world that it has plenty of offer as a meetings and events destination. Ian Whiteling reports…

With the Gulf Incentive, Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition (GIBTM) 2009 looming, one country is determined to put its troubled past behind it and position itself as one of the leading meetings industry players in Asia.

Confident that it can position itself as a key events destination, Sri Lanka will be launching a concerted marketing assault on this year’s GIBTM, which runs from 31 March to 4 April at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

In the beginning…
The country, which has attracted travellers from around the world for centuries, first showcased itself as a major destination for meetings when it hosted the Fifth Non-aligned Summit in 1976.

“That was the inaugural major event at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, which was the first purpose-built convention centre in South Asia,” explains Vipula Wanigasekara, general manager of the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau.

“The country has come a long way since then. More facilities have been added, and the industry has developed to a stage where professional local organisation is available, and programmes can be tailored to suit individual tastes, whether for small or large groups.”

Natural beauty: The Sri Lankan interior

Facing up to the conflict
Holding Sri Lanka back, however, has been a history of internal conflict, which has blighted a stunning country and hindered it’s development as a major business tourism destination.

Refreshingly, Wanigasekara does not shy away from talking about the country’s troubles.

“Sri Lanka receives well over 400,000 tourists every year,” he says. “Of them, nearly 70,000 come for meetings and events, and they spend most of the time in Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

“Many international events are taking place in Sri Lanka. It was only a few weeks ago that we hosted more than 550 delegates from the Max New York Life Insurance Company, Galle Literary Festival and several South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) events, including the SAARC Minister's Meeting.

“This itself is adequent evidence that visitors are safe and are not affected by the conflict, nor are they targets.

“The conflict in the North is far away from places that the tourists and delegates visit, and we are confident that it will be coming to an end very soon.”

Further proving Sri Lanka’s growing attraction to the meetings industry, last year also saw a number of key events held in country. These included: LAWASIA, the conference for the international organisation of lawyers’ associations, individual lawyers, judges and legal academics; the Annual Scientific Sessions of Anesthesiologists; the IMEXPRO 2008 trade fair; the Annual General Meeting of the Pacific Asia Travel Association – PATA; and the seventh Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting.

A real alternative
To get across Sri Lanka’s increasing importance as an events destination to this year’s GIBTM visitors, the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau is joining up with Sri Lankan Airlines to showcase the country’s facilities. Wanigasekera believes that, in particular, it provides a multitude of options for the incentive travel industry.

“Sri Lanka offers a variety of activities that can challenge and bond a group,” he says, “whether it’s adventure, jungle trekking or simply having a water-fight in the warm blue sea. You can decide whether you want to stay in a straw-covered hut among the lush rice paddies or relax in a seaside resort looking far out at the sea. Either way, you will have excellent comforts and a choice of gourmet food to make your event a memorable one.”

There is also now a well-developed network of expertise in staging meetings, conferences and exhibitions open to companies that are looking to hold events in Sri Lanka, and many partner with the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau. So whether you want five-star luxury in Colombo, coupled with high-quality meetings facilities, or a more challenging trek through the interior, where you’ll encounter some of Sri Lanka’s beautiful natural plants and wildlife, it’s clear that there is now a real alternative to the more obvious Asian destinations.

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