Reciprocity to visitors

The Government's decision to slap a visa requirement accompanied by a fee on foreigners visiting Sri Lanka has been met with a grumble from the tourist industry, which sees it as a damper on its plans to boost tourist arrivals. It is clearly a tit-for-tat move against countries that demand visas from Sri Lankans travelling to their shores, more than the revenue to be earned from the exercise. Only Singapore and the Maldives have been exempted because of their reciprocal treatment of 'no visa necessary' to Sri Lankans visiting their countries.

For too long have Sri Lankans had to stomach the indignity of hanging around embassies and outsourced centres with all manner of personal details, subjected to long waits in the blazing sun and 'grilling' by junior clerks while the tourist industry welcomes foreign visitors with orchid garlands; thank heavens, the limitless fawning with Kandyan dancers and caparisoned elephants on the tarmac has now ceased.

The travel trade is up in arms but there is no real correlation between the requirement for visas and tourist promotion. Mostly all countries where tourism thrives have visa requirements already in place. Provided there is greater professionalism from the industry and solid Government support, there is no need for concern. However the procedure to obtain a visa must be straightforward and uncomplicated.

Tourism is not the foreign exchange earner it was meant to be. It was only last week that we pointed out that it is the Sri Lankan migrant worker toiling away in often inhospitable conditions -- ironically many of them in the hospitality trade - whose incomes constitute the main foreign currency earner for the country. Tourism lags behind and much of the money earned is in any event spirited away both by the industry players and in the form of services and raw material requirements for the industry.

That a three decade-old war put paid to much of the hopes pinned on the tourist industry is only partly true. Many parts of the island were spared the northern insurgency and while it is true that the threat of bomb explosions was a deterrent, a whole gamut of internal issues also retarded the growth of the industry.

It took ages for the industry to get Government backing for a Tourism Authority driven by the industry leaders. They imposed a tax to create a Cess Fund by which they could engage in promotional activity. What has happened with this Authority?

For one thing, it comprises largely the industry's big names who are afraid to put their businesses on the line by making 'noises' and others who see it as a means to feather their own nests. On the Government's part, funds collected have been creamed away to have fruitless tamashas like the IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) awards where they busted up their annual budget in one go, and as the story goes in the trade, to support the jumbo Presidential entourages from time to time.

The UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the much vaunted document thrown at the face of the Sri Lankan Government and other Governments that have fallen foul with western nations on allegations of human rights abuses, has been flouted with gay abandon by those countries in terms of Article 12 which guarantees freedom of movement including the right of persons to choose their residence and to leave a country. These rights apply to legal aliens as well as citizens of a state and can be restricted only where necessary to protect national security, public order or health and the rights and freedoms of others.

Clearly, western countries face internal resentment from their indigenous population owing to the growing numbers of illegal immigrants either overstaying their visas or coming in surreptitiously. Yet, this is a direct result of the exploitation of the economic Third World and an imbalanced world order.

Most of these illegal immigrants are economic asylum seekers in search of a better world. These same countries also stand accused: on the one side, they need a certain number of people do jobs like garbage collection and at the other end of the spectrum, they fuel the Brain Drain phenomena by keeping the intelligentsia and the professionals who come for higher studies back in their countries by offering lucrative employment.

It is this total picture that must be taken into account in the Government's move to get rid of the country's slavish view of the world. There should be some limit when the British Government picks on Sri Lankans as the guinea pigs to test out its finger printing mechanism for visas. That was begun as a six-month trial - six years ago. One might argue that it is now passé with several airports imposing biometric tests on travellers.

However, on Sri Lanka's part, professionalism and good governance are then a sine quo non. The visa charges to be imposed are minimal in comparison to the hefty non-refundable fees charged on the poor citizens of poor countries by the affluent nations of the world.

And yet, the Government must be mindful that the tourist is already hit in many ways - by the economic recession and then by airline and airport taxes. There is already resentment that foreigners get charged so much more than locals when visiting tourist sites, though that happens in other countries as well purely for economic factors and as concessions to the locals. They will not grudge a visa tax provided it is reasonable and easy to obtain procedurally.

‘Jobs for the boys’

The photograph in one of the daily newspapers of the long queue of people waiting for ruling party nominations for the forthcoming local government polls was a story by itself. They must surely be selfless folks waiting to serve the people but it looked so pathetically like an employment bureau; and what better job that being a politician nowadays given all the perks of office.

Gone are the days when party branches or the leader nominated candidates. It is now almost as if an advertisement has been placed "WANTED: LOCAL COUNCILLORS".

The polls have triggered new accusations against the Government. For one thing, they are having them on a staggered basis giving the strange excuse of the World Cup as a reason for not holding polls in certain municipalities. Then, they have done away with the original intention of introducing the hybrid part ward-part-proportional-representation system into these elections to rectify some of the anomalies of the electoral process.

The one plea that the long suffering people would obviously make of the political leaders is to pick suitable candidates and not make a mockery of democracy at the grassroots. The local councils now overtaken by the Provincial Councils have long been the nursery of Sri Lankan politics. Barring some exceptions, there seems to be an urgent and abundant need to upgrade the quality of those entering the kindergarten of politics.

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