Potential as revenue earner not tapped as tourism figures show downward trend
A chronic downward trend in tourist interest in museums and cultural sites over the past few years has raised questions whether optimum use is being made of these hallowed and time honoured attractions.
While fee-levying tourist attractions in Sri Lanka have claimed they have been hard hit by the fall in tourist arrivals from 1996, their claim is belied by the performance of the Pinnawela elephant orphanage which attracted a record 115,000 foreign tourists — nine times as much as all the museums in Sri Lanka put together.
Though tourists arrivals fell by only 25 per cent in 1996 to 302,265 foreign visitors to museums fell by a massive 47 per cent to 13,000 from 25,000, according to latest figures of the Ceylon Tourist Board.
Revenue for museums fell from Rs 1,171,000 to Rs 622,000.
The number of visitors to museums has been falling since 1993 when 31,373 visited the museums in a year which saw 392,000 tourists coming to Sri Lanka.
National Museums' Assistant Director N Abhayawickrama, blamed the security situation in the country for the huge drop in foreign visitors to the museums which boast of artifacts dating back to some 2,500 years. However, there was an uninterrupted flow of local visitors, she said though their exact figures are not known
"We continue to draw in large numbers of school children. A number of television companies also continue to visit us to record documentaries," Ms. Abhayawickrama said.
But she declined to comment when asked whether the museum lacked the necessary funds to carry out vigorous promotion programmes, and make exhibits more attractive to visitors. But tourism industry experts say the government should step with necessary funds to modernise and promote our museums. The Sunday Times Business tried several times to contact the museum director, but officials said he was not available.
Foreigners who visit other countries are bombarded with signs at public places, leaflets and other promotional literature, which not only advertise their local museums, but also other places of interest.
But the Tourist Board does not promote cultural sites in this manner.
The Dehiwela Zoo attracted 865,000 local visitors in 1996 of which 14,669 were foreign visitors. The Pinnawela Elephant orphanage which attracted a modest 587,000 local visitors, in sharp contrast to the Dehiwela figures lured a massive 115,000 foreign visitors, nearly nine times the amount of tourists visiting museums.
Pinnawela earned Rs 8 mn from foreign visitors compared to Rs 1.2 mn earned by Dehiwela. However Dehiwela also earned a total of Rs 11.5 mn with Rs 10.3 mn from local visitors.
"We are a non-profit making organisation, hence, we do not have adequate funds for publicity campaigns," Dehiwela Zoological Gardens Director K D Wijesinghe said.
Pinnawela on the other hand is believed to receive a lot of free publicity by way of foreign travel writers who go back to their countries and report about the orphanage.
In 1996 even the cultural triangle attracted only 102,000 visitors which was 12,000 less than the Pinnawela orphanage figures.
There were also sharp drops in revenue from Peradeniya and Hakgala Botanical Gardens both of which had seen their revenue climb steadily up to 1995. The Yala and Udawalawe wild life parks were also hit. Wilpattu and Kumana had no revenue from tourists since 1985.
The Bank of Ceylon has been placed among the top ten most profitable banks in Asia in a survey conducted among the 500 largest banks in the region by Asiaweek magazine.
The bank was ranked ninth among the Asiaweek Financial 500 in terms of profitability though it was far down at number 367 in terms of size.
"The Bank of Ceylon's US $ 52 mn profit was larger than all but two of India's 10 largest banks, which are substantially bigger," Asiaweek said.
Bank of Ceylon General Manager Savithri Jayasinghe was not available for comment.
The ninth place was earned when the bank's profits measured as a percentage of gross assets giving a return of 2.4 per cent. The top place went to United Coconut Planters Bank of the Philippines which had a return on assets of 2.9 per cent. Profits as a percentage of net assets (return on equity) were 26.6 per cent. It was ranked 15 th in Asia in terms of return on equity. The top place went to Pubali Bank of Bangladesh which had a return on equity of 62.9 per cent.
Other Sri Lankan banks that made into the Financial 500 are People's Bank (392 in terms of size), Hatton National Bank (440 th), Seylan Bank (446th) and Commercial Bank (487th).
Without exception Sri Lankan banks had a higher rating on profits income than gross assets (size). They also had higher rankings on net interest income indicating that local banks were charging higher net margins than the regional average.
Unlike private banks, which have to absorb bad loan decisions with their own funds both the Bank of Ceylon and the People's Bank have had enormous injections of government funds to compensate for bad loans, some of which were given on government guarantees.
In 1993 both People's Bank and the Bank of Ceylon had injections worth Rs 24 bn to make up for bad loans via restructuring bonds. In 1996 a further Rs 23 bn was injected via restructuring bonds to make up for bad loans resulting from government guaranteed loans.
Answering a question posed by parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake, Deputy Finance Minister G. L. Peiris revealed that in 1995 the People's Bank was paid Rs 1,200 mn as interest on the restructuring bonds. But in 1995 the People's Bank only made a profit of Rs 402 mn despite receiving Rs 1,200 mn from the government, indicating that it would have suffered losses if not for the money received from the Treasury.
In the 12 month period from February 1, 1995 to January 31, 1996 the Bank of Ceylon was paid Rs 1,265 mn as interest on the bonds. However its profits were much higher than the interest payment in the 1995 financial year at Rs 2,832 mn.
The government has to continue these payments for another 30 years before finally paying the principal cash amounts to the two banks.
The Rs 23 bn injected in 1996 via ten year bonds was in respect of bad loans given to Janatha Estate Development Board, State Plantations Corporation and the Paddy Marketing Board, Dr. Pieris told Parliament.
In sharp contrast to the Rs 2.5 bn paid each year to keep the two banks afloat the fertilizer subsidy to farmers cost only Rs 1.5 bn in 1996.
Users of Colombo port have suggested that Sri Lanka Customs work on a 24-hour basis on a shift system or have extended hours of service to ensure the smooth functioning of commercial activities.
The Joint Council of Port Users (JCPU) says there are bottlenecks in different sections of the port due to time limitations in clearing and other services.
JCPU had made the proposals in response to a customs reform and modernization programme of the World Customs Organization.
"JCPU which is the umbrella organization in the shipping industry have already made several proposals to upgrade or modify the present obsolete Customs Ordinance and to achieve effective and modernized reforms'', the organization said.
The memorandum represented contained the views of member associations of JCPU: Association of Clearing and Forwarding Agents (ACFA), Sri Lanka Freight Forwarders Association (SLFFA), Association of Container Terminal and Depot Operators (ACTDO), Association of Container Transporters (ACT), Sri Lanka Shippers Council (SLSC), Sri Lanka Association of Vessel Operators (SLAVO), and Sri Lanka Consolidators Association (SLCA).
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