“TOURISM IS BOOMING IN SRI LANKA” – ARE WE READY TO MEET THE FUTURE DEMAND?
Posted on August 10th, 2010

Sarath. Wijesinghe  LL.M ( London) Solicitor – Ambassador of Sri Lanka to United Arab Emirates

 Currently we live on the sweat of the expatriate labour force mostly in the Middle East which is the main income of the nation in place of traditional exports such as tea rubber coconut and apparels. Middle East thrives on oil which the nature has gifted them. We are gifted with one of the most beautiful beaches rivers wild life climatic conditions and natural resources in addition to friendly educated and smiling nation coupled with great cultures and religions. Are we ready to embrace the boom after the end of the cruel war of thirty years which Sri Lanka successfully won by eradicating the most ruthless outfit terrorist organization on the earth in a short span of four years?  To be the wonder of Asia in few years we have to change our selves and the strategies drastically and on the right direction. We must now admit that no longer our nation can depend on traditional incomes such as plantations apparels and exports. We are blessed to be in the most beautiful country on the planet and I am sure no other member of the world family would register claims to be so. We have to think fresh and explore new ventures to be the “Wonder”. The best and readily available vehicle for us to achieve this target is tourist trade which we are conversant with.

 Tourism is thriving in most parts of the world due to hard work and a proper vision in the absence of natural resources or ideal climatic conditions the Sri Lankans are blessed with.  Singapore has been a barren land but a fine business hub today. Due to hard work and a proper vision it has become a leader and an example for tourist trade.  Thailand and Malaysia are countries with natural resources where maximum use of their natural wealth is made use of.  Maldives is a tiny group of islands lived on fishing and dried fish thriving on tourism today.  United Arab Emirates has been a desert 45 years ago but currently one of the richest countries and one of the best tourist destinations. Abu Dhabi is the richest town in the world and UAE the fifth richest. Dubai is the “Business Hub” of the Middle East and the platform to Africa and surrounding countries as one of the busiest airports in the world. UAE became the “Wonder of Middle East” not necessarily with the enormous wealth bestowed on by oil alone. They have a vision and the resources are well invested. The country of 20% locals have got 80% expatiates to manage the country which is well managed using ultra modern technology being though a traditional Muslim country. The best part is that tourism too is thriving in the UAE despite the adverse climatic conditions which they have won over. Water is purified from sea and the road net work is excellent. We have to learn a lot from these success stories for us to earn our living from tourist trade and to achieve the target set up in “ƒ”¹…”Mahinda Chintana’ the policy document of Mahinda Rajapaksa Government which pledges to introduce an accelerated development programmed for the tourist industry, a programmed to be launched to fulfill the infrastructure and other requirements in order to attract 2.5 million tourists annually by the year 2016.  This is a very encouraging and challenging target not at all impossible to meet provided the “Nation” is geared towards the goal as one.  We have to work harder to achieve this target with a proper plan of action using modern knowledge and experiences on technology while keeping pace with the modern developments.  It is very encouraging to note that New York Times has rated Sri Lanka as first out of 31 popular destinations for tourists.  Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka in 2007 have been 494008 and in 2008 it has dropped down to 438475 with a decline of 55533. In the year 2004, 566000 tourists have visited the country and in 2010 the expected number is 575000.  These are very rough figures which will give an idea for us to plan for the future. Currently we have only 15,000 hotel rooms and we need at least 50,000 in the near future to cater the demand. We are informed hotel rooms in the periphery if fill to capacity. Tourism is booming and even currently the hotel rooms are full. It is clear that we have to launch a vigorous and accelerated programme. 

 Having realized this President Rajapaksa has proposed a financial scheme for medium scale entrepreneurs to obtain loans up to 100 million in relation to the tourist industry and invite prestigious hoteliers to  open two seven star hotels.  Support also will be extended to the private sector to develop 50,000 hotel rooms under the guidance of BOI.  Necessary facilities will be provided to local suppliers to manufacture equipment needed for the hotel trade.  Assistance and opportunities will be provided to residents of popular tourist destinations to start small comfortable houses for tourists at reasonable rates.

 This seems to be a practical solution without launching mega projects which needs large sums of money and not cater urgent needs.  At the same time the State will be extremely careful of the adverse side effects that follow tourism on culture, religion, upbringing children and families. There should be a separate legal machinery ( as in many other countries where tourism is thriving)  to monitor tourist guides, tour operators, hotels, and others engaged in the industry as there should be a balancing effect. In Brazil child prostitution and drug addicts are rampant as a result of tourist trade. Thailand too is infested with drugs and prostitution though thriving on tourism. These are areas we should be careful about. The Ministries of Culture Social Services should act in hand with the Ministry of Tourism to strike the balance of tourism and the development of the society.

 Local entrepreneurs of main tourist areas will be encouraged to construct Ayurvedic centers which could accommodate around 200 patients.  Currently alternative medicine is popular worldwide.  Ayurvedha, Siddha and Unani are systems of medicine established in Sri Lanka which is practiced for generations successfully.  It has become extremely popular among tourists being a treatment with nature and no side effects.  The Government has pledged to support “Eco Friendly” tourism and agriculture based tourism and will use of government and private owned farms for this purpose. “Farm Tourism” is extremely popular in other parts of the world where tourists enjoy the life of a farm and live and enjoy farm life. Yala, Walawa, Kumana, Bandula,Wasgamuwa,Wilpattue, Minnariya and Hortain Plans are few national parks with wild life elephants and thick jungle with  water full of streams run through ending with beautiful water falls. “Religious Tourism” is also encouraged by developing Buddhist places of worship in order to increase tourists from countries such as Thailand and Buddhist countries. There are plans to establish a tourist centre with special cultural importance to Asia.

 Why do tourists love Sri Lanka?  They like Sri Lanka for the beauty, water falls, climatic conditions, nice and cheap hotels, friendly staff, warmth and the friendly nature of the people, sandy beaches, beautiful blue sea, Kandy and Kandy Perehera, Nuwera Eliya where the climate is as cold as Wales, villages, elephants, wild life, Temple of Tooth, Ayurveda and alternate medicins, mountains, natural beauty, precious stones, Sinharaja forest, ancient archaeological sites such as Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, National Parks such as Yala, Kumana, Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala are only very few amongst hundreds of places for tourists. There is nowhere in the world such a selection for tourists are available in a small island. 

 The sad story is that we have hardly explored this priceless wealth as in the   Middle Eastern countries blessed with “OIL which they have very wisely invested on development including tourism. There are 250,000 Sri Lankans in UAE all of whom are employed serving the development of UAE and Sri Lanka simultaneously by developing the host country and remitting the earnings to motherland uplifting the economy as the main front liner contributor to the national economy. Sri Lankan Ambassador in UAE has pleaded from the Sri Lankans to promote at least one tourist per year was taken very seriously considered. This exercise will promote tourism as well as the two national carriers namely Sri Lankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka. There is the potential for employment for Sri Lankans in the Middle East for the next 30 years and these promotions will have a favorable ripple effect as the employers travelling to Sri Lanka will become potential investors and new ventures and employment opportunities will be generated. Unlike European backpackers Arabs are genuine and rich tourists who should be provided with luxury rooms with attach pools, helicopter travel from Colombo to destinations and Arab food in hotels. These are investments well worth and the Sri Lanka embassy in UAE ( lankemb@emirates.net.ae) is ever prepared to help the prospective tourists and the investors in tourist trade in Sri Lanka.

 It seems that the tourism in Sri Lanka is leading towards the right direction by setting up Sri Lanka Tourism, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lanka Institute of Hotel Management and Sri Lanka Convention Bureau with new life and vigor headed by young and educated professionals.  Tourism Development Authority has the main responsibility in promoting and implementing the concepts laid down in “ƒ”¹…”Mahinda Chintana’.  They have to look for innovative methods of achieving the targets.  They must try to upgrade the existing hotels, convert good houses to motels, give incentives for training, improve railway to make it more attractive by reintroducing first class and observation compartments as the quickest mode of conveyance which the tourists will like will be the train where the tourists will love traveling through Kandy to Nuwera Eliya and to Down South with wonderful views around.

 Steps will have to be taken to modernize the airport to be clean, modern and friendly.  Immigration and customs officers must be friendlier.  Airport staff be trained properly, notices and signals at the airport should be exhibited very carefully because the first impression of a tourist matters a lot as a result of adverse publicity by a section of the international media. First impression carries a long way and we listen to adverse comments by tourist and would be tourist with utmost sadness. Reality is that we have yet to achieve the required standards for which no funds are necessary. Certainly no funds are required to be clean, pleasant friendly and smiling. We won the war which the world predicted would loose due to determination of the nation and leadership of the leader and the lieutenants who was around him at the decisive hour of the nation. What is needed here too is determination and centralized action with a decisive aim.

 Sri Lanka Tourist Promotion Bureau and the Institute too will have to draw up a modern programme with the Convention Bureau in compatible with world standards.  There is a demand for hotel staff all over the world including Middle East where the Institute of Hotel Management must be in a position to provide staff worldwide which will have a ripple effect on the tourist industry in the country. There is lot of potential for employees in hotel trade in the Middle East. Leading hotel chains must be invited to set up hotels mostly in Kandy and Nuwera Eliya where the Arab world loves the climatic conditions. 

 We no longer should depend on the traditional western tourists.  Our catchment areas on tourism should be Middle East, Chinese, USSR, Balkan and the Asian Regions.  It is easier for us to cater to them as now Western tourists have become liabilities to us. Most of them do not bring funds and parasites to us by living on our goodwill and polluting the culture and breeding of the younger generation.  The Middle Eastern tourists will prefer Sri Lanka due to the distance, compatibility, beauty and the friendly nature of the people.  Currently the influx of tourists from the Middle East is growing day by day and it is time for us to meet the target by setting up new hotels, Arab food outlets and set up quick helicopter towards from Colombo to the respective destinations.  As for the tourists from the Middle East money is not a issue.  They want comforts, rooms with mini swimming pools and things to do during the holiday.  Dubai though a traditional Muslim country night life is as lively as London.

 Sri Lanka is as safe as any other Middle Eastern country and definitely safer than London for a tourist. Travelling in London in the night on foot is dangerous especially for a non white which is not the case in Colombo today.  Security is absolutely safe and there is politically stability for the next 500 years as any remnants of any possibility of terrorism is completely eradicated.

 It  is good news that Sri Lankan Missions worldwide today has broken the shell of traditionalism and become a part of the development of the Nation  by actively engaged in tourism, business promotion, employment promotion investment promotion and generally become an active member of the exercise of achieving the target of reaching wonder of Asia earlier that anticipated. It is heartening  to note that e Sri Lankan embassies and the expatriates  work together at this juncture with the Government Institutions in Sri Lanka to make Sri Lanka the Wonder of Asia by creating a conducive atmosphere for the tourists to enjoy their holiday freely and peacefully and investors to invest and engage in business with Sri Lanka.

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