Bleary-eyed, I was woken up by the shrill rings of the landline. As I picked it up, I was distracted by the barking of the neighbourhood dogs. Looking out of the window, I could see they were disturbed by the presence of Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu engaged in a conversation at the [...]

Business Times

Raising hopes


Bleary-eyed, I was woken up by the shrill rings of the landline. As I picked it up, I was distracted by the barking of the neighbourhood dogs.

Looking out of the window, I could see they were disturbed by the presence of Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu engaged in a conversation at the gate – this time not as usual under the Margosa tree.

Pity, because the Margosa tree conversations gave a lot of food for thought and ideas for the column. Anyway after the minor distraction, it was ‘Koththamalli’ Fernando, the Kokatath Thailaya (oil for many ailments) expert who has a remedy for any issue, who was calling. Most probably he had a remedy for the country’s festering crisis. Anyway!

“I say..… are offering some fabulous discounts,” he said.

“Well they need to keep their rooms and staff occupied after taking a severe hit,” I replied.

“I wonder how they would survive this crisis. On the other hand, the tourism industry has had its ups and downs over the past three to four decades and somehow survived against all odds,” he said, reflecting on the past.

Absolutely! In a separate article today in this section, Business Times takes a look at the crises faced by the industry since the mid-1970s when tourism was just starting to grow. Those were the days when the UK was the country’s topmost source of tourists unlike today where India and China are our main sources.

As we speak, I could hear snatches of the gate-conversation, with the trio appearing to be discussing the April 21 attacks and the recent mob violence in the North Western (Wayamba) Province. “Aei apey minissu saththu-wagey hasirenne (Why are our people behaving like animals)?” Kussi Amma Sera could be heard saying.

Ehe-mei, ehe-mei (Yes, yes),” nodded Serapina.

Getting back to the chat with Koththamalli, we discuss a range of issues on the tourism sector and their impact from the recent disturbances and then wind up the conversation promising to meet next week.

I could hear the gate-conversation in full swing but at that moment there was a call on my mobile phone. It was Mr. X, a long-time friend in the hotel industry who is a very rational industry leader.

Getting to the point, he asked: “I say…….why are we taking the tourism sector in isolation when every sector is affected? We need to discuss what we can do as Sri Lankans to turn this country around,” he said.

“The tourism industry has gone through these phases….…we will survive but we need to examine the situation in a larger context of national reconciliation and suffering,” he continued.

“I do agree..….but where do we start?” I asked. “We need strong leadership, we need a short-term, mid-term and long-term plan to tackle these issues. Furthermore, the tourism industry had a good run for a near 10 years after the war ended. So we need to plough some of those returns back into the sector to keep it afloat for the next few months until tourism recovers,” he said, adding: “In the meantime, Sri Lanka needs to be looking at answers to the crises at hand.”

We then had an extended conversation on the national crisis and the impact on the economy. “It is not only tourism that has suffered but the entire economy. We need to get back to normal life and I think the security forces are doing well in helping the police to restore normalcy,” he said.

Indeed the entire economy has taken a hit. Furthermore, this was on top of subdued consumer sentiment. In fact, all the banks are reflecting moderate returns in their first quarter results.

“Highly volatile economic and political conditions prevailing in the country affected many key economic sectors since 2018. This trend continued in 2019 as well, undermining the financial performance of many businesses,” said one bank in reporting its first quarter 2019 performance. Sri Lanka’s economy has been affected by slow growth in 2018, exacerbated by the political crisis in November/December 2018.

In terms of tourism, arrivals fell in April by 7.5 per cent to 166,975, with the UK – for the first time in several years – ousting India as the largest source market. India, Sri Lanka’s biggest tourism source, recorded a 21.5 per cent drop in arrivals. The drop was largely due to a proliferation of travel warnings by countries to avoid Sri Lanka after the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks, an issue that Sri Lankan authorities are desperately trying to rectify.

As Mr. X argues, however, the answer lies in how Sri Lanka will tackle these issues taking an overall view instead of being tourism-specific since it is only if peace is restored and Sri Lankans can heave a sigh of relief, that normalcy can return to all economic sectors. People need to return to the streets, children should be able to go to school without their parents worrying about their safety, businesses belonging to all communities need to get back to a secure environment, people need to return to the parks, go to restaurants and patronise hotels. That is what most law-abiding citizens are hoping our leaders will be able to deliver in a sensible way.

Communal disturbances now happening more frequently (last year near Kandy; this year in the North Western Province) are not good for business and many chambers have expressed concern not only in the context of the impact on business activity and sentiment but also on the nation as a whole. The silver lining is that Sri Lanka has shown to be resilient and recovery can be swift as proved in the past, particularly during the 30-year conflict.

One of the negatives, however, is that Sri Lanka’s political leaders are more interested in their own well-being and often don’t rise as statesmen to deal with a country when it is on fire.

What this country needs is a kind-of council of elders – made up of those from civil society, religious groups and respected professionals – as an advisory body to any government, to douse the flames of hatred, bitterness and discrimination. Business, it must be remembered, can only thrive in an environment of peace and dignity to all citizens. Jobs and more jobs can be created only if there is dignity and wealth creation particularly for the middle class can happen only if there is peace and stability.

As I press the button on the computer to send off the latest column to the Business Times, Kussi Amma Sera walks in with my long-delayed morning brew – a cup of tea. “Karadara wedi, neda Mahattaya… karadara wedi neda (Too many problems, Sir),” she says, shaking her head in disgust. “Ehe-mei..…ehe-mei (Yes, yes),” I say in agreement.

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