When Ranasinghe Premadasa was President, he floated the concept of a coordinated marketing effort to promote Sri Lanka tourism.
Rather than work in isolation, he suggested that all agencies involved in trade and commerce should be co-opted in an integrated marketing campaign without focus on tourism alone. That idea didn't germinate into a fully-fledged plan and as a matter-of-fact was also discussed during the time Dharmasiri Senanayake was Minister of Tourism. Today the government is contemplating a similar coordinated marketing plan bringing tourism, SriLankan Airlines, gems and jewellery, exports, commerce, tea, etc under one roof.
However latest reports indicate that the government has shelved this idea. The proposed coordinated campaign was meant to cut costs for a cash-strapped government which has been grappling with a promotional and marketing budget proposal with disputes arising between officials, professionally competent in tourism promotion and marketing, and bureaucrats who have little or no knowledge about the intricacies of destination marketing. Asking embassy staff to man counters at important tourism trade fairs is a weak marketing ploy when highly skilled and competent officials run counters of other tourism-generating countries.
Such is the chaotic state of the promotional aspects of the industry that on one occasion, an embassy official (the only one assigned to the Sri Lankan counter) completely forget the date of the event! Picture a visitor to a trade fair inquiring about Sigiriya or tour packages or seasonal fruits in Sri Lanka from an embassy official? He or she would probably smile sheepishly and tender a brochure on Sri Lanka which may not have that information. With key state tourism officials barred from attending trade fairs - a must to promote a destination which is why the same key officials of private sector companies attend these fairs every year- the onus of promoting Sri Lanka as a destination has fallen on the embassy or a lowly-placed official in Colombo picked by the Ministry.
In another fiasco, a Board of Investment (BOI) official from Koggala was sent as the BOI nominee for a Singapore investment seminar with more than 100 businesspersons attending, to make a presentation. He failed to do so, presumably due to lack of competence or confidence. There are many other incidents of this nature relating to the BOI and tourism agencies. Nalaka Godahewa's resignation from three of the four agencies is the icing on the cake of the dispute between professional and competent officers at these agencies and some Ministry high-ups.
The Ministry of Economic Development this week firmly rejected media reports that the main issue was the dispute between Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and senior officials at tourism agencies, saying Godahewa's resignation was part of a re-organisation plan.
"The resignation of the Chairman was not due to his inability to work with the Ministry or due to a tussle between Secretary and Chairman as implied in media reports in which case he should have resigned from Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority as well," the Ministry statement said. That's just part of the story and many in the industry and in the state agencies itself would vouch for the fact that all has not been well at these institutions. The authorities believe there is no need for an expensive marketing campaign but one has only to look at the Maldives, Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia with sizable budgets for tourism marketing which brings in returns far greater than the investment in a spend-more-earn-more strategy.
The ministry - and this policy applies to both the BOI and tourism sectors - believes that the same set of officials should not be sent abroad to attend trade fairs or investments seminars. It is a give-everyone-a-chance theory; it doesn't matter whether such officials are able to secure an investment prospect or convince a travel agent to send his clients to Sri Lanka instead of Malaysia! If the private sector is run this way, it would be doom all the way. That's why high-fliers in the leisure sector like Hiran Cooray and his sister Shiromal, Abbas Esufally, Michael Elias, Malin Hapugoda, Anura Lokuhetty or Nilmin Nanayakkara among many others attend these fairs every time despite their busy schedules because tourism marketing is a very competitive business and presence of the top hierarchy - at every event - is essential to ensure continuity with clients.
This week's Business Times poll on these tourism issues has a lot of food for thought for the Minister (Basil Rajapaksa) and his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa on how to move forward towards that elusive goal of 2.5 million visitors by 2016.
The crux of the issues confronting tourism is twofold: Allow professionals to run these organizations as they are trained and skilled to do so far better than politicians and bureaucrats, and provide a marketing promotion budget that would place Sri Lanka on a level-playing field with other competing markets. Arrivals today, in the absence of a clear promotion strategy, are essentially on the curiosity factor (what Sri Lanka looks like after the war which includes visits by many Sri Lankan expatriates) and traditional markets like the UK, etc. This euphoria won't last. Godahewa's usefulness may have ended in tourism marketing and promotion, as far as the Ministry is concerned. However his skills and competence have not gone unnoticed by the President.
The current Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) chairman was part of the presidential entourage on visits to Korea and Thailand where he gave an overview of the post-war development potential of the country to investors, in a presentation that also impressed the President. Godahewa was also the keynote speaker at a UN World Trade Organisation on the country's post-war development future.