In excess of two million visitors are expected in Sri Lanka this year, but only 20 per cent of their expenditure will stay in the country.
Economists warn that will not change until the country builds a smarter workforce.
At Galle, inside the town's historic old Dutch fort, boutique hotel manager Henry Fitch hopes his staff will prove the point of difference in a competitive market.
"It's service," he said. "We have 45 staff for the 18 rooms here."
His hotel, the Fort Bazaar, only opened in January, but is expecting an onslaught of big-name competition this year.
Cranes and scaffolding dominate the Colombo skyline, and are also prominent along the popular coastline to the south around Galle.
Between Sri Lanka's capital and the south coast, more than 5,000 new high-end hotel rooms are under construction.
The Sri Lankan Government hopes to welcome 2.2 million people this year, up from 1.8 million last year.
Tourism and services are the major hope for Sri Lanka's economic future.
The country has been growing strongly since the civil war ended 2009, largely the result of what is termed a "peace dividend" — major investment in rebuilding and infrastructure projects like roads and ports.
But much of that construction was financed by Chinese loans, and the national unity Government, elected last year, has sought to cut back on the borrowing due to concerns about corruption.
It now wants to expand the services sector by turning Colombo into a financial hub and luring more tourists.
Workforce holding Sri Lanka back
But the country's workforce is holding it back, according to economists.
"The tourism sector is still short of about 100,000 people," former deputy governor of Sri Lanka's reserve bank, Weerakoon Wijaywardena, said.
"People at the managerial level are being imported from India," Mr Wijaywardena said.
The former central banker said for each dollar a tourist visiting Sri Lanka spends, a staggering 80 cents leaves the country.
"Construction of hotels is only one part of it," he said, pointing to Sri Lanka's need to educate and train more people capable of running them once they are built.
"Then we can think of the tourism sector contributing to inclusive economic growth."
Dushni Weerakoon, deputy director of think-tank the Independent Policy Centre, believes the Government's fragile coalition is to blame for the lack of economic focus.
"Since the change of Government, there's been issues of transition, holding a coalition together so we are yet to see a medium term economic policy," she said.
Wijayawardena also worries about the concentration of development in Sri Lanka's south, warning that unless more Sri Lankan Tamils get similar opportunities, reconciliation will be a failure.
Back in Galle, waiter Vinod said Sri Lankans are perfect at hospitality because they enjoy welcoming people.
"One day I hope to be hotel manager," he said. "But I must improve my English further."