Tourism in turmoil
Tourism as an industry was mooted some 40 years ago by the then Minister of State J.R. Jayewardene amidst mild criticism that we would be prostituting ourselves at the altar of the Almighty Dollar.
Today, Sri Lanka depends heavily on tourism for its sustenance, the industry providing direct and indirect employment to thousands of families while earning valuable foreign exchange for the State coffers. A multi-billion dollar earner world-wide, both the affluent and the poor equally profit from it.
Given that it is very much a leisure and entertainment business, any visitor to the country would naturally be concerned about his or her safety.
Thus, the travel advisories, especially from Western countries warning their citizens against visiting Sri Lanka due to the Northern insurgency has really hurt the local hospitality trade. It may then be opportune for the industry to look eastwards, towards Asia in the future, without this over-reliance on Western tourists whose spending power is often a myth.
Last week, The Sunday Times reporters visited the Southern coastal belt where by now the 'peak season' would be just about warming up, only to find ghost-like hotels and deserted beaches.
The Budget had hardly any reference to anticipated revenue from this sector for next year, but going by the ground realities -- mass cancellations by foreign tour operators --any significant income seems a mere pipe-dream.
But is the Northern insurgency the only reason for the decline in tourism?
From 1987 to 1990, Sri Lanka had not one, but two parallel insurgencies -- one in the North and East and the other in the South, the latter where most hotels and tourists were.
And yet, the situation was not as bad as it is today.
So, what's gone wrong?
For starters, look at those at the helm of the industry.
We have a Minister who has asked the President to sack the Ministry Secretary; a Ministry Secretary who does not speak to his Minister or the Tourist Board Chairman; and a Tourist Board Chairman who does not speak to either of them.
This is at the apex.
Then, we have the captains of the industry, who seem not to have the guts to make a difference.
The President, regrettably, is allowing the situation to drift aimlessly -- a terrible reflection on his management style.
In the early days, he tried to replace the Tourist Board Chairman, but the Chairman stayed put with the backing of the Minister, and continues to stay put -- even without the backing of his Minister.
Then, he was persuaded to appoint a committee that was to go into the implementation of the Tourism Authority that was created with the input and backing of the industry. This was effectively a delaying tactic to pass the revenue collection from a 'cess fund' and its expenditure to the industry to decide on, rather than to the Tourist Board. This Authority remains in limbo with the committee report still awaited.
The reason for appointing this committee to look into the matter after all in the industry had already approved it, was ostensibly to see if it conflicted with the 'Mahinda Chinthana'. It was as absurd as that.
If the President wants economic development to proceed hand-in-hand with this insurgency, then the manner in which a pivotal industry is being managed is surely an eye-opener that this is not the way to set about that task.
Small-time hoteliers, both local and foreign are near bankruptcy having invested their savings in an industry that is getting little or no support from the Government.
In the bad years of 1987-90, the then Government called for meetings and gave a helping hand by way of re-scheduled bank loans and duty-free import permits etc, just to help the industry survive. Not so now. There's no one to even give them a hearing.
The UNP Government had a Master Plan for the development of tourism. It committed several mistakes, but at least, made heady progress on that score. It planned to develop a second international airport at Wellawaya to feed the East, up-country and the South, to develop the beachfronts north of Negombo, the deep South and south of Trincomalee; it allowed foreigners to invest in the Galle Fort residences that were falling apart; and it came up with the Tourism Authority that would enable the private sector to take the lead in tourism promotion globally and policy management locally.
The best way forward for this Government is to take a fresh look at the Tourism Authority Law and have it implemented without any further vacillation. Something will have to be salvaged from an industry that has been permitted to all but collapse.
And evidently, the decks will have to be cleared at the top to permit this to take shape.