Business Times

Tourism: Frying pan to the fire

Call it what you like – from the frying pan to the fire or musical chairs in an extreme way -- but the recent changes in the tourism sector are appalling. Earlier this week parliamentarian Nandana Gunatileka resigned from the post of Tourism Minister saying he was having problems with National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, and was replaced in that position by parliamentarian Achala Jagodage, both nominees coming from the same party.

Gunatileka, appointed Tourism Minister in July, four months later is made acting Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, in an appointment by the President on Thursday. For the second time this year, the tourism industry is in a state of shock at the way musical chairs are being played in the country’s most vibrant, post-war sector. The industry is gearing for massive changes in the sector with Aitken Spence, John Keells and Jetwing among others planning on investing millions of rupees in new hotels and upgrades while the government is playing ‘pandu’.

“This is just tiresome. It’s just no use complaining any more,” said a Colombo hotelier, adding that he would – for the first time – abstain from attending the usual welcoming ceremonies and ‘speech of promises’ for the new minister.

The new, 36-year old minister most likely doesn’t have any administrative experience and, one hopes he doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel as Gunatileke did particularly with the ‘small miracle’ drama. That entire marketing campaign got screwed up after the planned ‘small’ miracle campaign was discontinued, a public call made for new ideas for a campaign without any scientific basis which is the way these processess are normally done, and delays in launching the new campaign after some finality is reached.

It is clear, even in Gunatileke’s case, that these appointments are stop-gap ones or ‘fillers’ till the elections period is over. Ideally with a new cabinet or a caretaker cabinet expected to be sworn in around January/February after presidential polls (that is in the case of the President winning), the task of these new, stop-gap ministers should be of a hands-off approach, allow current programmes to continue and only step in to ensure there is no blocks in the decision-making process, etc.

But such advice is most likely to be ignored and eventually becomes a useless exercise just like what the Colombo hotelier is experiencing. More than in any sector, things are happening speedily in tourism and hospitality. Hotels are filling up once again and December is going to be probably the busiest month in recent years with expatriate Sri Lankans coming to their homeland in droves to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.

The East has seen a huge resurgence in tourism particularly of a domestic nature with the beaches of Trincomalee, said to be among the most beautiful in the world, filled at the weekend with locals, making full use of the freedom from war and bombs.

In the present political culture, most appointments in the cabinet are for political reasons rather than based on experience in the assigned subject or the least, some administrative experience. However there are also capable ministers and in this case – because appointments are temporary – it would have been more practical to appoint a senior minister to oversee this ministry in addition to current functions until the polls were over. Even more practical would have been to elevate Minister Faizer Musthapa, who handles this subject, to the cabinet level position.

A World Bank project to build capacity in the sector was also in the balance as Gunatileke was propagating more state involvement in the industry from a public-private sector partnership-oriented one. Will the minister change what has happened in the post-Gunatileke era or continue the plans?

Furthermore will the musical chairs also extend to the directors who have been appointed to various boards and institutions under the Ministry that handle promotion and development, when Gunatileke took office? That will certainly happen given the bitter rivalry between Gunatileke and Weerawansa.
So prepare for another set of appointments to boards and institutions or perhaps another ‘miracle’ when it doesn’t happen. Ever since serious issues cropped up during the late Anura Bandaranaike’s tenure as Minister which ultimately led to Milinda Moragoda’s appointment, and now Gunatileke and Jagodage, industry officials say this sector has received step-motherly treatment.

Anyway, the way things are moving rapidly and in an unpredictable manner in the politicial spectrum as the country prepares for a testy and sore presidential poll, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the new minister will survive even for two months or whether more changes are forthcoming.

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