Promoting tourism as a country like no otherView(s):
One of the problems with politicians, especially our very own scintillating lot, is that they forget to keep the mouth and feet at either end of their anatomy. It is not surprising, therefore, that all too frequently one ends up inside the other.
So it happened the other day in Berlin – the beautiful, historic and once-divided city where I spent nearly five months at the height of the Cold War — when another of our celebrated ministers in that bloated cabinet which is likely to be inflated even more — or so we hear — became a victim of the foot-in-the-mouth disease.
Now he may keep company with several of his prestigious colleagues of varied reputations who keep a disgruntled populace regaled with their multiple acts of derring-do as part of their patriotic duty to uplift the nation and place it where it was once.
One supposes that Tourism Minister Harin Fernando’s remarks the other day at a media briefing at Berlin’s Internationale Tourismus Borse (ITB), the world’s leading travel and tourism show, was intended as part of his nationalistic endeavour.
Had Minister Fernando stopped at ‘selling’ Sri Lanka’s varied tourist attractions and its ventures in the making –if one were to believe in the prophetic vision of his State Minister Diana Gamage whose verbal outpourings exceed her promises — he would well have escaped the resultant backlashing he richly earned.
Brimming with confidence and verbosity yet to match his state minister, the Tourism Minister who has been boasting, of late, about the large numbers of visitors already in the country before half the month was over, probably thought he was addressing his friends in the local media and forgot to guard his tongue.
So he fired his verbal scatter-gun hoping to hit some targets like those outdated tear gas shells that now and then descend on protesters in Colombo streets, hoping to win some applause at home from those who resent competition.
Just to avoid a repetition of the usual response of politicians who have committed faux pas and find a convenient scapegoat in the media to blame as Minister Fernando just did, let me quote his words reported in a cross-section of the media.
“I know lots of people go to the Maldives… the Maldives just has the beach – I’m not criticising – but if you stay there for five days, you get fed up of it. That’s it, you’re just on an island, you’re caught up in one place. But in Sri Lanka, it’s not like that; there’s something for everyone.”
Hardly had the minister’s gaffe hit the wires, reactions came fast and furious even in Sri Lanka. Here is one.
“Dear people of Maldives I’m sorry for this …., we as Sri Lankans always understand that we are part of the South Asian family & always cherish the bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Maldives. More than anything we understand that we both are two different target markets.”
A Maldivian media outlet, the “Atoll Times”, took a justifiable sideswipe at the minister but did so with dignity, a characteristic that seems sadly lacking in some of our ministerial maestros.
Said the Atoll Times: “The minister has been criticised not only by Maldivians but also by Sri Lankans for making
such remarks about a neighbouring country.
“Many noted that Maldives tourism and Sri Lanka’s tourism were different and the target markets of the two countries were different as well. Some even said that in such a big international event, top officials from neighbouring countries should talk about each other with dignity.”
“It is not necessary to criticise the Maldives to promote Sri Lanka… Maldives is a luxury tourism destination. It is a completely different kind of tourism [from Sri Lanka’s tourism]. Sri Lanka is also beautiful on its own,” a local tweeted.
“Promoting Sri Lanka by undermining a neighbouring and friendly country is a low-level act. With the Maldives, it would be better to see if the two countries can make high-end luxury tour packages together,” said a Sri Lankan.
As part of Sri Lanka’s efforts to tide over the economic crisis, tourism has started to improve and nearly the same number of tourists have started visiting the Maldives.
Exasperated by Fernando’s rather condescending remarks his Maldivian counterpart sought to teach his Sri Lankan neighbour some facts of life.
“The Winner of the World’s Leading Destination at the World Travel Awards in 2020, 2021 and last year (2022), the Maldives is the global tourism benchmark. We thank developers and service providers for making the Maldives, simply the best and addictive. If you are jealous and in doubt, please ask the mirror again and again,” the Minister of Tourism of the Maldives Abdulla Mausoom has Tweeted in response to Fernando.
Not unlike some of Sri Lanka’s other ministers and their official minions, Minister Fernando sought the most convenient rathole to signal his exit. He blamed the media.
“My statement made in Berlin regarding the beautiful Maldives islands has been taken out of context and been misinterpreted on social media. I wish to clarify that we are together with our neighbour on tourism and would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused,” said Fernando sounding the retreat.
But he conveniently avoids explaining what he meant by the two allegations he levels at social media. What was out of context and what had been misinterpreted by social media? What the erring minister does not say — and which he should have stated candidly — is what the misinterpretation was. After all, it was not only one media outlet — be it the mainstream media or social media — that could not quite understand what the minister was trying to say.
Had he been trying to unravel some abstruse philosophy or theory which left his listeners confused? But that was not what he was doing. He was trying to belittle the tourism facilities offered by the Maldives against the attractions available in Sri Lanka.
If the Maldives was so bereft of attractions and visitors were fed up after five days sitting on the beach or dipping into the surrounding waters, why for heaven’s sake, has our neighbour been selected as the best tourist destination three years running and why are so many high-end tourists flocking to the atolls?
Are those hundreds of thousands of high-spenders who visit the Maldives annually totally mad or is our minister suffering from an inability to understand what others can see?
Or is it that he believes that condescending dismissal of other competing nations is the way to gain worldwide publicity and attract tourists to our Resplendent Isle? If that is our novel way of promoting tourism he should also have a word or two with his State Minister Diana Gamage who thinks she knows best how to turn good ole Lanka into Paradise Regained.
Not too long ago she was almost packing her bags to head out to President Biden’s country to continue a dialogue which she said she had started with the Walt Disney Company to open “Disney Land” in Hambantota and instal Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, not to mention several other brain shattering ideas.
Right now she is advocating that liquor be freely available for foreign tourists on Poya days.
But maybe she is too busy just now with other thoughts
in her mind to share any with poor Harin.
(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)
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