The Development of Recreational Boating in Sri Lanka | YP Loke, GMBA Singapore

Recently, the High Commission of Sri Lanka in Singapore contacted the Singapore Boating Industry Association to assist in the organisation on an online workshop to promote Sri Lanka ‘s plan to develop its recreational marine sector.

There are strong political and cultural linkages between Sri Lanka and Singapore. Both are small island states with a British colonial past. Diplomatic relations go back over 50 years, but this is pre-dated by strong people-to-people ties underpinned by the mutual understanding and respect for shared cultural values dating back to the beginning of the medieval Maritime Silk Road. The 2019 trade statistics show Singapore as the fifth largest investment partner for Sri Lanka with close to USD100 million in investments, while bilateral trade amounted to almost USD900 million.

Economic development in Sri Lanka was stymied by internal strife for many years. An insurgency in the north, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resulted in a civil war which ended in 2009. With peace came relative calm, resulting in much needed economic development. Among other economic sectors, the Sri Lankan Government paid particular emphasis to the development of a leisure marine sector where it felt the Country has a natural competitive advantage. A new State Ministry – the State Ministry of Boats & Shipping Industry – was formed to oversee the national effort to develop the Country’s marine manufacturing capabilities and promote it as a yachting and nautical tourism hub. To encourage investment, new ventures in marine manufacturing are entitled to a seven year tax break.

Sri Lanka has been a commercial boatbuilding centre for 50+ years, building for the domestic market and exporting mainly to regional and new world markets. It hopes to move up the value-added chain by building for the recreational marine sector. Despite the pandemic – of rather because of it – boating activity has increased globally, resulting in a shortage of boat production capacity. This surge in global demand represents an opportunity that Sri Lanka’s boatbuilders hope to capitalise on. Manufacturers will have to acquire new technical knowhow and market knowledge to cater to this market. The exacting demands and building standards in recreational boat manufacturing is a challenge they need to address and overcome.

On the domestic front, the civil war had in the past hindered investment and development. The result is that the Country’s unspoilt beaches and varied coastline are a treasure trove of natural beauty preserved in a time warp. The Government is now looking at developing nautical tourism to untap this vast potential. A string of marina sites has been identified around the island, waiting for the right investor. These include a mix of greenfield sites and existing fishing harbours. The Colombo Port City Marina which currently has a temporary marina and is a base for whale watching activity is a specific investment opportunity currently being promoted. Whale watching and surfing are on-going nautical tourism activities at a nascent stage of development. With investment and government support, the sector is set for dramatic growth with much more varied and sophisticated tourism product offerings. When in-bound travel resumes post-pandemic, many more visitors will seek to reconnect with the great outdoors and commune with nature. This makes the demand for authentic, unspoilt, and natural destinations – of which there are many in Sri Lanka – far outweigh that of overpopulated cities with jostling crowds.

In consonant with the development of nautical tourism, Sri Lanka plans to capitalise on its strategic geographic location in the Indian Ocean region and cater to long distance blue water yachtsmen and superyachts. Its position between Europe and East Asia makes it the ideal stopover for those plying this route.

The 3-hour online workshop took place on 11-May 2021. Presenters at the workshop included high level government officials, Mr. Harsha Pathberiya (Acting Director, Industrial Exports Division, Export Development Board) and Mr. D Mataraarchchi (Secretary of the State Ministry of Boats & Shipping Industry Development), who outlined the Government’s plan to develop the export and domestic sectors.  The full programme (PDF file) can be seen here.

A panel of subject matter experts was assembled to discuss the topics presented. They included GMBA Advisors David Lewin and Oscar Siches. Lewin spoke about the need to develop a boating culture within Sri Lanka to build a local market as a foundation for an export industry. He said that partnering with overseas builders in the manufacturing of series production boats is one way to fast track the development of the industry. It is an area where GMBA with its vast overseas connections can assist.  Siches said that the great strength of Sri Lanka lies in its cultural authenticity and geographical advantage. In keeping with this thought, simple moorings buoys at some locations may be more thematically aligned with the local environment than a spanking new state of the art marina.

The workshop closed with a roundtable discussion moderated by ICOMIA’s Secretary-General Udo Kleinitz. Sri Lanka recognised its potential in leisure marine as far back as 2014, when the ICOMIA Marinas Group met in Colombo at the invitation of the Boat Building Technology Improvement Institute in Sri Lanka (BTI). It is now the ICOMIA member for Sri Lanka.

The development of Sri Lanka’s recreational marine sector bodes well for the whole industry in Asia. Its success in this endeavour will be closely monitored by industry watchers and marketeers looking for new markets to distribute their product. A rising marine recreation tide in Asia will float all boats.

YP Loke | GMBA- Singapore
+65 9736 1819
yp.loke@gmba.blue


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