- Shenuka Hapugoda on the BA.LA.MU app and bridging gaps in the travel industry
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s largest industries, and stakeholders have been making attempts to revive it following the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing economic crisis. While the industry’s attempts have been creative and innovative, the use of technology to improve the industry and attract more tourists to the country has been apparent.
The BA.LA.MU app is one such initiative and Brunch spoke to its Founder and CEO Shenuka Hapugoda to learn more about the app as well the use of technology in the tourism industry.
Hapugoda is of the belief that technology has a big part to play in the industry, but that it needs to be looked into more as an aid to tourism as opposed to a threat. She has a background in IT and worked as an IT consultant in London for close to ten years. However, when she returned to Sri Lanka in 2017, she turned to travel and tourism, which is her passion.
This was because she didn’t necessarily want to go back to the business consulting field. During a break, she identified a gap in the market, given the country’s annual tourist arrivals and available services and wanted to make something for the country, which eventually became BA.LA.MU.
Hapugoda said it is more a passion project, explaining that she was inspired when she saw how things are done in other countries and, then having come back, seeing that there is a lot more that can be done in Sri Lanka.
The app was launched in December 2021, right as the last wave of the Covid-19 pandemic eased in Sri Lanka. They started seeing growth in January, February and March, and during this time, the team looked into the existing environment, building relationships, and pushing the app. However, due to instability and unrest in the country and the economic crisis, tourist numbers have dropped since April.
“Until things improve a little, we are not going to see the numbers going up. But I think one thing we have seen in the tourism industry over the last three years is that people are very interested in travelling to Sri Lanka. In 2019, right after the Easter attacks, by September, we were back up to the 2018 monthly arrivals. We bounced back quite fast, so similarly, as the Covid-19 restrictions were eased and travel started, Sri Lanka was one of the few places that people were coming to,” Hapugoda said.
She showed confidence in the numbers picking up after the economic crisis is resolved to an extent. Hapugoda was also of the view that Sri Lanka needs tourism to succeed in order to recover from the economic crisis.
She said she was hopeful that stakeholders would join together in this regard.
Focusing on the BA.LA.MU app, the idea comes from audio guides that are provided to visitors at historic sites abroad. However, the app is more accessible as it can be downloaded to one’s phone.
“We were living in London for about 15 years before we returned in 2017. While travelling in Europe, it was very common to have access to audio guides or information. Once we returned, I would take the kids around and try to show them various places, but it was very difficult to find that quality of information and it wasn’t readily accessible,” she said.
Hapugoda went on to say that there have been a number of times where the guides were unable to explain the story behind a place in English. This pointed to a gap in the market.
“I’m not saying all guides aren’t good but I think the number of good guides are limited compared to the number of tourists that we were getting and in order to scale, we need to have some sort of technology coming in,” she said.
Hapugoda further added that technology is needed in order for us to be able to scale and cater to the number of tourists that are to arrive as well as different language preferences.
She explained that tourists look for the famous Sri Lankan hospitality when they arrive on the island. With an app like BA.LA.MU, guides can focus on being a host, while the information about various tourist attractions can be accessed via an app. “This will also give more people space to join the industry without having in-depth knowledge of everything,” she added.
The app is described first as an audio guide that provides entertaining and informative descriptions of places and things one sees. Secondly, it is a digital map, with a carefully curated route and geofenced locations. Lastly, it is a collection of images, giving visitors not just a view of what they should be looking at, but also providing an enlightening glimpse into the past with historic photos of places and events.
Travellers can access information about nine locations at the moment; Galle, Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Negombo, Colombo as well as the Ella-Kandy train journey. Locations like Arugam Bay, Trincomalee, Jaffna, and Anuradhapura are in the pipeline.
Hapugoda explained that travel restrictions made it difficult to access these places since she had to visit the location and carry out research in order to compile the content.
In terms of the curated route, Hapugoda explained that, if a traveller is in Galle Fort, they will be shown a route and the audio about various places; the Dutch Reformed Church, for instance, will play automatically at the different locations.
The app caters to both local and foreign tourists. “While doing research for the app, there were lots of things that I got to know about the Galle Fort and its history,” Hapugoda said, adding that there could thus be many other locals who are interested in listening to stories about locations that bring the place to life.
The information for the app is gathered by Hapugoda herself at the moment. She tries to do the walks herself, doing a lot of research to compile information about these locations. However, going forward, she plans on getting someone on board to help out.
Increased accessibility through translations
Depending on app usage, the app will be translated to Sinhala and Tamil. Currently, it is only available in English, but the team is in the process of having it translated to multiple languages.
In terms of the audio, the English audios are machine generated, she said, adding that the Chinese and Hindi audios they are working on at the moment are by actual people.
“All the English ones also, in the future, we want to get the recordings done but we haven’t had the space to do that yet.”
We asked her why they chose Chinese and Hindi as the first languages to translate the app to, to which Hapugoda replied: “What we have seen is that there have been a lot of tourists coming from India after the Covid-19 pandemic. So India is our number one market at the moment. And even though most of the tourists who come speak fluent English, they like to converse in Hindi as well, so I think the audio in Hindi will be useful.”
She added that China was our number one market pre-Covid-19. Although the numbers from China dropped after the pandemic, Hapugoda was certain this was mostly due to the travel restrictions imposed by China. “Once those restrictions kind of ease up, I’m sure those travellers will come back,” she said, explaining that this trend was seen in most other countries once they eased their Covid-19 travel restrictions.
They also plan on introducing a gamified version of the app, with a scavenger hunt. This is still in the works.
Finally, we asked Hapugoda what she would like to share with anyone who would like to travel to Sri Lanka, especially during current times. She said that the industry is making arrangements to ensure that fuel and gas are available at tourist locations.
“A concern I hear from a lot of tourists is that, when there are so many shortages, whether they’ll add to the shortages by coming. And I think, no, by coming, you will help ease those shortages by providing foreign exchange into the country,” she said.
As for locals travelling within the country, Hapugoda suggested travelling as groups in one vehicle, as opposed to using multiple vehicles. This would reduce fuel consumption. “But as an industry, we need people to be moving around and travelling and supporting the local businesses,” she added.