Picture a tree in your garden, the flowers of which have blossomed under your loving care; where you would sit on a bench underneath the branches and have numerous chats over the years with family and friends! The margosa tree in the garden is a similar companion but on this Thursday morning except for the [...]

Business Times

Look before you leap!


Picture a tree in your garden, the flowers of which have blossomed under your loving care; where you would sit on a bench underneath the branches and have numerous chats over the years with family and friends!

The margosa tree in the garden is a similar companion but on this Thursday morning except for the rustling of the leaves as strong winds swept through its branches, there was silence, absolute silence. No conversation from the trio – Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu or Serapina; they were nowhere in the vicinity….…having gone to their villages on their week-long, annual sojourn for the Avurudu season.

The branches of the margosa tree looked forlorn and appeared to be pointing downwards to the bench below, as if saying that it missed the trio’s regular Thursday morning conversation! Everyone was missing this morning including Aldoris, the choon paan karaya and Premalal, the vegetable seller. Most families in the neighbourhood had also gone away for the holidays.

An unusual peace and calm engulfed the area this morning and as I pondered on what to write, the silence was broken by the ringing of the telephone. It was Pedris Appo, short for Appuhamy – a retired agriculture expert who does farming, on the line.

“Hello… Suba Aluth Avuruddak Wewa (Happy New Year),” he said. “Esema Wewa (Same to you),” I said in a warm response.

“I wonder what your thoughts are about issues arising out of the proposed new Sri Lanka Tourism Authority Act which will replace the Tourism Act of 2005, as reported in the media last week,” he said.

“Well … there seems to be some rush in getting this across. I would think there are more important issues like getting tourism back on track amidst the COVID-19 pandemic than changing the laws at this point,” I said.

“From my understanding and from views expressed in government circles, it appears to be that the main three associations that represent the industry wield a lot of power and thereby other smaller groups don’t have a similar voice in the state tourism agencies that are involved in promotion, development and conventions. That I think is the problem,” he said.

“I tend to agree that maybe smaller associations need to be brought into the picture but if that is the only problem (I reckon there are many more), then amendments to the Act would have sufficed,” I said. We continued the conversation on other issues before winding up.

Coming back to the tourism conundrum, it seems that the government is in haste to change the law rather than provide more strength to smaller agencies through amendments. Smaller associations representing tour guides, drivers, tourism lecturers and tourist shop owners, it appears, would like a stake particularly in the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) which, by law, has representation from the Tourist Hotels’ Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and the Travel Agents’ Association of Sri Lanka (TAASL).

In recent times, the tourism authorities have been reaching out to the smaller organisations and bringing them into the policy-making process and the rationale behind the need to enact new laws may have been aimed at giving more teeth to the state agencies to provide a place for organisations other than the three main ones.

The new proposal aims to bring under one authority the functions of the SLTDA (involved in development), the SLTPB (involved in promotion) and the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau (promoting MICE). Under current practice, representatives of the THASL, SLAITO and TAASL are represented on the boards of these organisations, thus having a say in the decision-making process.

Private sector representation on the SLTPB (maximum of six members) is more than public sector representatives (five members) and this might be where there is a dispute at the moment because in the allocation of funds for various tourism-related activity, the SLTPB gets the bulk (70 per cent) from current funding which comes from a set of taxes (including an embarkation tax for departing tourists and a Tourism Development Levy on all tourism businesses) which bring in over 2 billion rupees  annually, as at 2019, since 2020 was a ‘dead’ year for tourism.

The balance funds are apportioned to the SLTDA (14 per cent), Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (12 per cent) and the Convention Bureau (4 per cent). Under the proposed changes, only 66 per cent will be received by the new Authority which has to use it for all activity – at a time when Sri Lanka is planning a massive international advertising and promotion blitz in late 2021-early 2022.

When the Tourism Act of 2005 was being drafted, wide private sector consultation took place and the intention of its framers, at that time, was to create an institution which would run as a public-private partnership – particularly in deciding how international promotion and marketing should take place. Subsequently, at all overseas trade shows, the private sector and Sri Lanka Tourism worked together to put on a ‘good’ show, which was of mutual benefit to the country.

What irks the industry is that the proposed new Authority will combine three state institutions which now operate separately and which currently have representations from industry associations. The proposed Authority will not have representations from the private sector, apart from representation on an advisory committee which as the name suggests is only advisory in nature without the wide decision-making authority the SLTPB has at the moment.

The Authority will consist of the following members appointed by the Minister: The Chairperson-Sri Lanka Tourism; the Director-General; Secretaries to the Ministry of Tourism, Provincial Councils, Cultural Affairs, Environment and Wildlife or a nominee and a representative of the Treasury and Chairman of the Central Cultural Fund. As you can see, there is no private sector representation.

Ever since tourism began to flourish in the 1970s with the advent of the Bentota Beach Hotel in the midst of iconic properties like the Galle Face Hotel, the Queen’s Hotel – Kandy, the Grand Hotel – Nuwara Eliya, the former Taprobane Hotel – Fort or the Mount Lavinia Hotel, the industry has been steered by the private sector.

“We pay the highest amount of taxes to the Government. We are of the firm view that the tourism industry cannot be developed by merely changing the current Tourism Act and a change should not be done unless there is a real benefit to the stakeholders of the tourism industry in the long term,” SLAITO and THASL said in a  joint statement expressing concern over the new legislation.

Coming to the end of my column, I walked into the kitchen and prepared my own mug of milk tea without sugar. As I sipped it reflecting on the tussle between the associations and the tourism authorities, I felt that in the interests of the industry, there is a need to come together and resolve these issues without any friction. Let sanity prevail at a time when tourism is struggling with just a trickle of visitors since the airport opened for foreign tourists last January.

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