The distractions were a-plenty but for me, there was a singular purpose this morning; I mean the topic for discussion. Kussi Amma Sera had brought the morning tea and in her usual style tried to get me interested in a conversation about a change in policy where the Government this week cancelled an archaic law [...]

Business Times

Tourism: Ready, steady … no go!


The distractions were a-plenty but for me, there was a singular purpose this morning; I mean the topic for discussion.

Kussi Amma Sera had brought the morning tea and in her usual style tried to get me interested in a conversation about a change in policy where the Government this week cancelled an archaic law barring women from purchasing liquor and also working in places where alcohol was sold.

On the face of it, this law looked silly, unbelievable. In fact, one female commentator on social media said, “this can’t be (the existence of such a law). I have always been able to buy my liquor”.

Similarly, women have worked in restaurants, pubs and hotels where liquor is served and female bartenders have in fact won awards at widely, publicised local bartender competitions.

The Sunday Times Business first raised alarm bells on this obnoxious law in an April 21, 2002 article strongly urging that this law be scrapped particularly in the context that this is a blatant violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the 1978 Constitution, which include the right to equality and non-discrimination on the grounds of sex.

After a few more failed ‘writing’ attempts to undo the law, Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) entered the fray and on November 19, 2017 wrote that the law seems ridiculous since the new Excise Chief is a woman who, by this law, can order raids on establishments and enforce regulations like ‘drinking hours’, etc but cannot buy a bottle, nay a ‘tot’ of toddy from a tavern. Interesting times indeed, today and for readers who relish a good yarn, read about our related saga on toddy on Page 9 which refers to the recent restriction on toddy tapping and of a product that even elephants drank during ancient times to give them strength during battle!

Yep, KAS is happy that the Government finally overturned a 62-year-old (1955) law barring women from buying alcohol and a 1979 rule preventing women working in places where liquor is sold.

Crisis in tourism

Much as I would have loved to engage in a conversation with KAS on scrapping the liquor ban as she kept on asking “Mahattaya, meka hondai neda?” I couldn’t.

The phone rang and my good friend, Mr. Tourism-Know-All (TKA) was on the line, in fact, to continue a conversation that ended abruptly the previous evening owing to a home emergency. And the issues we were discussing were fresh on Thursday morning, the reason why I steered away from the liquor debate.

“The tourism sector seems to have got messed up with marching orders being given to Udaya Nanayakkara,” TKA said, picking up from Thursday where we discussed the Sri Lanka Tourism chief’s ‘dismissal’ from his post by Tourism Minister John Amaratunga.

It was ironic for Nanayakkara, a veteran in the trade, to leave for the second time in controversial circumstances. He was Tourism Chief in 2005 when the new Tourism Act was approved by Parliament. Just before taking up the post (being a member of the tourism private sector), he had backed the proposed law but opposed it when he became Tourist Board chairman, for the simple reason that the powers of this position were being clipped with the private sector having a bigger say in the affairs of tourism. The implementation of that Act had to be made effective through a gazette notification which was ‘delayed’ for two years with Anura Bandaranaike at that time being in the ministerial seat. When Milinda Moragoda took over as minister, he ordered the gazette setting up the four structures – development, promotion, convention and training.

It hasn’t been an easy ride since then. The Act itself has a peculiar format. For example it first deals with development (Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority — SLTDA), then the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) in chapter 6 followed by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) in chapter 7 and thereafter the Sri Lankan Convention Bureau in chapter 8. In today’s context, promotion needs as equal importance as development but drafters of the proposed law, given that Sri Lanka was confronted by violence and conflict at that time, may have felt that development required more prominence and that trying to engage in costly promotion campaigns at that time was like ‘pouring water on a duck’s back’.

The ministerial seat has also been a hot one apart from incumbents making statements that border on absurdity and stupidity. For example then Tourism Minister Nandana Gunatilleke, clueless on the subject and who thankfully served only a few months around 2009, wanted to scrap the 2005 Act and take back powers to the state. He was quoted as saying that decisions were not suited to the government agenda. “I would not tolerate such decisions and once the existing laws are amended I could implement the Mahinda Chinthanaya in the Tourism Ministry,” he reportedly said.

Such gut-wrenching statements continue to be made by different ministers to this day. The other day, Minister Amaratunga, that is if he was correctly quoted and not out of context (on the other hand ministers are quick to deny what they have said if their comments become unpalatable to the public) said that female tourists shouldn’t walk alone on Sri Lankan roads. He was alluding to a report where a female tourist had been sexually assaulted.

This is a political jester Mervyn Silva-without-thinking, type of comment. If one is to take the minister’s word, then Sri Lanka is not safe for anyone, let alone tourists. Coming from a minister promoting tourism and who should be assuring that Sri Lanka is a perfectly safe place, by Gad Sir, this is not done!

Nanayakkara’s abrupt departure from the hot seat has a long story to it which involves alleged interference in day-to-day operational issues by advisors of the minister and their hand-picked officials which has been chronicled in the local media for many months. The minister has defended his decision, saying he was acting on industry complaints that the long, awaited promotion campaign was being delayed. Nanayakkara believes failed attempts to get the government to host a private dinner to 100 Chinese couples who were married in a colourful event in Colombo and inability to get the minister’s advisor to sit at board meetings of the SLTPB as an observer were the straws that broke the camel’s back.

Rather than get the act together in coming up with a marketable tourism policy after the war ended in mid-2009 and Sri Lanka was open for trouble-free overseas traffic, tourism development and marketing have been trapped in egos, bureaucracy and bureaucratic bungling and ad-hoc decision-making.

There are too many cooks today – three separate committees looking at tourism promotion and development apart from the institutions under the Tourism Act, in addition to several local and foreign consultants. The law has not helped either, having many gaps that need to be amended.

Removal of an official by the minister in charge is complex and inconsistent throughout the Act. For example Section 5 (6) of the Act pertaining to the affairs of SLTDA provides a removal mechanism. It says: “The Minister may, if it is expedient to do so, remove from office any member of the Authority other than the Director-General.”
However, in the section on the SLTPB, the law is silent on a removal mechanism. In the case of the SLTPB, any “member of the Bureau may resign from office by letter addressed to the Minister”. Thus, unlike the case of the SLTDA chairman’s post, the minister cannot remove a member of the SLTPB.

While ministers can be erratic (not sometimes, but most times) and dismiss people as and when they please, laws need to have a clear appointing and removal mechanism. The recent issues pertaining to the Central Bank Governor who cannot be removed, unless for reasons of insanity or misconduct, is a case in point. There is no provision for removal on the grounds of inefficiency or incompetence.

Tourism approvals go through very complex procedures. So much so that if a member of a tender or procurement committee cannot understand a proposal, he or she can raise objections and then it is back to the drawing board. “Mark my words, this promotion campaign will take months, maybe years to start,” said a tourism veteran familiar with current government procedures.

Firing Sri Lanka’s tourism chief came just as two powerful industry bodies in a joint statement on Monday welcomed the new campaign and urged that it be implemented without delay at a time when arrivals have slowed down, room stock has increased and regional competitors are upping their game. Reading between the lines of this statement, one got the impression that the industry feared ‘all hell to break loose’ and was pleading for sanity among stakeholders.

Short of a miracle, Sri Lanka’s tourism marketing promotion will again take a back seat while political manoeuvring takes precedence. That’s Sri Lanka for you, where the only thing certain is ‘uncertainty”.

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