When Michael Sathasivam set off for a holiday in Malta in 2016, little did he realise it would soon lead him to a complete change of career. During the week-long trip, the life-long IT professional fell in love with the yacht and marina based tourism and wondered why Sri Lanka, another beautiful island nation, did not have the same. As tourism was taking off, and feeling restless within his IT career, he saw an opportunity to transform the yacht and marina potential in Sri Lanka. Today he is founder and managing director of Symbiosis International.
In 2016, tourism leaders were talking about a preferred focus on high-yielding tourists, but the infrastructure isn’t in place to welcome the particularly lucrative cruise segment. “In markets like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, cruise tourists were bringing in $350 per night of revenue, whereas in Sri Lanka, at the time, it was just $80-90.” Globally, 30 million passengers are expected to cruise in 2019, with over four million of them in Asia.
The Cruise Lines International Association predicts 13 million passenger destination days will be spread across 306 Asian destinations, yet Sri Lanka’s market share of this remains tiny. In 2017 less than 50 cruise ships stopped in Sri Lanka, with the vast majority transiting for less than a day.
“It’s a fun industry, but also a tough one. I’m not going to sink; I’m going to swim with it.”
Undeterred by his lack of knowledge of the industry, Sathasivam gave himself eight-months to learn on the job, bootstrapping the business. “I felt it was a chance to do something for myself, in an area I was passionate about.” Symbiosis International partnered with industry-leading marina operator ProMarine and Singapore’s oldest architecture firm Swan & Maclaren to design plans for a new Galle Marina.
His second company, founded in 2018, Taprobana Rendezvous, executes Symbiosis’ vision of ‘enchanting and rejuvenating waterfront living’ by partnering with companies that would benefit the tourism industry here. They have introduced high-end boats, see-through kayaks, gadgets and toys like jet surfs and floating doughnut boats, where up to ten guests can sit and BBQ while on the water.
Sathasivam is also the country lead for Fiserv in Sri Lanka, a $15.3 billion U.S.- based Fortune 500 fintech that provides solutions across digital banking, financial crimes and risk management, anti-money laundering, cash and ATM management, and core banking. Some of their largest clients in Sri Lanka include state giant Bank of Ceylon and listed Commercial Bank, the largest private bank. Sathasivam’s first taste of business came in 1998 with a job selling PCs at EW Information Systems.
Thrown in at the deep end, he quickly learned to swim in the corporate world, delivering on large deals and gaining recognition. A stint at Millennium IT was followed with work at Airtel and several multinationals including Cisco. He next headed commercial operations at IBM Sri Lanka. In 2011 he joined SAP as country head for Sri Lanka and transformed the business, growing the overall market by 300% year-on-year. “That was probably the highlight of my career; turning SAP from a large monster that only big organisations would run into something that was widely deployed in Sri Lankan companies.”
Sathasivam believes the opportunities for marine tourism in Sri Lanka are not well understood. It’s a complex industry to navigate with at least five government ministries involved in any decision. To successfully execute marine tourism requires an entire ecosystem, not a single project. Progress is slowed by a lack of understanding of its potential, which goes beyond the yachts themselves to a whole marine ecosystem, high-end shopping, food and beverage outlets and high-end hotels.
Cruise and yacht tourism also offers potential to spread the economic impact of tourism around the country, away from the traditional (and easily accessible by land) hot spots of the cultural triangle and the south coast. “The problem is that Sri Lanka says it wants to capture highend tourism, but the infrastructure and the willingness to do that is at a different level altogether.”
With a goal of five million tourists being the vision, if only 300,000 of them live-aboard yachts, cruising around the coast from Jaffna to Trincomalee to Galle, experiencing a different side to Sri Lanka, the impact will be huge. Sathasivam hopes a separate entity dedicated to marine tourism and luxury or high-yield tourism will be established by the government and managed by those who understand the tourism industry. A lot to hope for? Maybe, but Sathasivam is in for the long-haul. “It’s a fun industry, but also a tough one. I’m not going to sink; I’m going to swim with it.”