Tourism: Ideas for consideration if Tourism is to be developed
Posted on November 17th, 2013

By Garvin Karunaratne‚  former Government Agent, Matara

A Spectacular Phenomenon

Last week I went to Iceland, in search of the Northern Lights, a mysterious phenomenon – coloured shades of light in the sky taking various forms, at times even sequencing a dance.‚  Every tourist that enters Iceland is determined to see the Northern lights. This is the attraction that lures tourists to many countries in the far North like Norway.

I have seen sunrise at Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii and there at sunrise various colours were emitted in the sky for quite a while. It was a grand sight.

Almost all tourists coming to Iceland are mesmerized to see this phenomenon and they wait days if only to see it. We had to wait for three days. On the night when there is high visibility enthusiasts travel towards the North of Iceland by coaches‚  searching for them. On the night when we went, there were eight coach loads of tourists on the road. In addition there were many cars.‚  At Haleakala one has to get up at three in the morning and motor on a stiff road‚  to the edge of a crater to see the marvelous sunrise.


I am concerned why we have not been able to attract tourists to see sunrise at Sri Pada. I have been to the summit twice at dawn and on those days there was no spectacular sunrise. However on a trip to Pidurutalagala mountain I saw sunrise in its full grandeour. The various colours did move about in pristine glory which I can recall today some fifty years later. Many people talk of the spectacular sunrise at Sri Pada. No one speaks of this sight at Pidurutalagala. It is my opinion that we can attract tourists to these two places to see this grand sight. Special publicity is needed.

In‚  Iceland‚  the Northern Lights is the prime show and people flock to Iceland for its sake. The restaurants and hotels are costly. One can buy a budget trip (Air fares and hotel) at a discount but restaurants are charging easily double the prices in London. The tourists have to somehow eat during their stay‚  because they are captive. This trade offers employment and incomes for the locals. It is fair to say that the economy of Iceland entirely depends on‚  tourism. All sorts of goods are available at high prices. The shops cater to every activity that tourists require The sea is too cold and the beaches are not an attraction. Some tourists are avid artists and would sit hours looking at a scenery trying to portray it on a parchment. There are shops that provide the easels, all sorts of specialist brushes and paint‚  that are required by artists. I have never seen any such shop in Sri Lanka though we have stunning scenery.

Tourism is perhaps one of the saviours we have today. However it has to be stated that some essential factors have to be addressed if Tourism is to be successful. In that respect Iceland has a great deal to offer us.

The author has been a global traveller in‚ ‚  the past two decades; my travels have taken me to every nook and corner one can find in the United States, in Canada, Mexico and some countries in Europe and Asia.‚  My mode is to travel in a rental car without a guide mix with the people and find things for myself. As a member of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service there is not a patch of land that I have not covered in our country. Perhaps my ideas may therefore be valid. It is my thinking that we have not yet harnessed the beauty of our island so far. The ideas expressed are not a criticism.‚  It is a sincere attempt to develop our effort.


Even Government Ministers have criticized‚  the hotels in Sri Lanka for the high charges they levy. This is true. Having‚  stayed at hotels in easily half the countries in the world, I can make a statement that we are over pricing our hotels. We can easily kill the hen that lays the golden eggs.‚  Solely left to the Private Sector mentality of making a fast buck that can really happen.

Hotels can be classified into a few categories: Luxury, Medium, Budget and small Bed and Breakfast.‚  Countries like Thailand, with which we have to compete‚  have a very large network of Medium and Budget Hotels where they adhere to a high standard of service and the prices are around half of what one is charged in Sri Lanka.‚  To start with Sri Lanka requires more medium and budget hotels and the charges have to be reduced. This is true of Singapore too. The charges in Sri Lanka are above the Singaporean level. To my mind most of the tourists come to the Medium and Budget Hotels and this is an area that has to be looked into.‚  Further many‚  tourists that come to Sri Lanka are of the low budget type, the frugal, who rarely spend.

Tourists are of different categories. Some come to have fun and games, while others come to enjoy the natural beauty, enjoy the beaches and to see places of historic importance.

The Natural Beauty

Our natural beauty is something that we do not appreciate ourselves. I have already commented on the grandeour of sunrise at Siripada and Pidurutalagala.‚  The Northern Lights are amply advertised. Similarly we have to show tourists what they can expect at sunrise and I am certain that tourists will flock to the top of Sri Pada and Pidurutalagala at sunrise and the hotels in Nuwara Eliya and Hatton and Maskeliya can gain a windfall in offering accommodation. This is employment creation, something that we do required most.‚  Even Worlds End which is a sight not to be missed and can well attract may tourists is not publicized and has no proper accommodation up to date.

Any tourist guide on California delves deep into the natural beauty of the‚  Big Sur- the stretch of coastal roadway from Monterey to Los Angeles. The road winds its way along the rugged coast. The Oregan coast to the North of California is also a marvel in scenery. Many tourists drive enjoying the scenery for hours on end. On my travels in Sri lanka I have seen many such marvels. One is the stretch from Deniyaya to Rakwana. It is a winding road, with ten hairpin bends when the road drops to Rakwana. One can see the stunning scenery to the south. The road needs to be carpeted and there should be vista points where tourists can park their cars and watch the scenery for hours.‚  A few hotels should come up facing this marvellous sight.

Another marvel is the stretch from Belihul Oya to Haldummulla and Haputale. It a glorious sight. One can see the Kataragama Hills and beyond- even the sea.‚  The last time I drove from Haputale I was sad that there was no parking space to park and watch this glorious sight.

Another such drive is the Kandy- Mahiyangana‚  road when the road takes the hair pin bends where one can see far out into the Eastern Plains.


We have all driven again and again to Kandy and have been mesmerised by the scenery that one can see at Kadugannawa. One can see the Bible Rock and hills in the distance. Sadly there is no parking space to park one-â„¢s car and watch this glorious sight with the clouds dashing on the hills above. .

Another beautiful drive is the road from Ella to Moneragala. The road is rugged and the last time I tried I had to back track to Ella because the road was too rough.

In‚  all these places the roads need to be widened at spots of vantage beauty to enable motorists to park and‚  enjoy the beautiful scenery. A few kiosks can crop to cater to thirsty tourists. This is employment creation, income for the rural folk. In many other countries I have seen‚  artists sitting for hours portraying the scenes on parchment. Not so in Sri lanka where we have not thought of providing the essentials.


We have to use the various flower shows etc in the world to attract people. In the UK the Chelsea, Hampton Court‚  Flower Shows are a hive of activity and many countries have stalls to show their beauty and attract tourists. But I was sad not to see a single scenery from Sri lanka displayed at the Sri lanka stall at the Floriade Show in Netherlands last year. It was a Show that was continuous for three months and other‚  countries like India‚  were making headway while the Sri Lankan Stall had only eats, and crafts It was done by the Jayakodys, related to the Premadasa faction.‚  I was told that the organizers sought material to display and never received any.

Unfortunately political rivalry too eats into our future.‚  The Party Political System of democracy was foisted on us to divide us and keep us fighting for ever. Sadly tourism to has to suffer. Not so in Western democracies like the USA, Canada and the UK where after the fighting at the elections are over and someone gets elected the people move together and attend to development tasks in unity. Sadly not so in Sri Lanka where political affiliations even divide brothers and sisters in a single family.

Tourism should help the locals; it should not be an investment for foreigners.

I note that in some areas like Arugam Bay many hotels are owned by foreigners. This is something peculiar to Sri Lanka. In other countries hotels are owned by locals. Then the profits stay within the country. Foreigners will hog any place to make money. Tourism too should be run not to use local people as waiters, and chefs. Instead all hotels should be run by locals. Foreigners come in attracted by BOI tax concessions. We forget that they take earnings away and also close shop when the tax haven ends. The net loser is us.

Perhaps my experience of establishing rice mills‚  may be valid. Once in the Fifties we needed rice mills fixed up fast. The Government identified the areas where the rice mills should crop up and‚  called for offers from the private sector to develop rice mills. We provided the foreign exchange, the expertise and the guidance for local people if they were to put up rice mills. I worked in that team, Then we controlled development. It will be good if vantage areas so far not touched by hotels be mapped out like the Ella- Moneragala stretch, the Belihul Oya- Haputale streth, the Nuwara Eliya- Gampola stretch, Deniyaya- Rakwana stretch‚  etc where there are no hotels where one can lounge on a chair and gaze for hours at the pristine beauty that nature has bequeathed to us. The Government has to provide incentives for local people to invest in hotels.

Ancient Ruins

Sri Lanka is a country that is not only steeped in history dating back to the pre Christian Era, but has massive tanks, dagobas, statues, caves, frescoes etc.‚  We can easily compare our ancient sights to any other country. We are not providing enough facilities for tourists to see these places. Tours should be organized with Colombo, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Hambantota as the base.‚  There should be day tours and a few day tours advertised where a‚  ticket can be purchased by anyone and the person will be collected from a hotel. This could lead to the development of Tourist Terminals.‚  A country that has developed ancient sites in tourism is Northern Cambodia where ruins like Angkor Wat have been publicized and many tourists are attracted. There Tourism is a hive of activity.

Trained Guides

An essential category for tourism are guides. They should be smartly dressed and be informative. This is lacking in Sri Lanka. It would augur well to have an uniformed‚  tourist guide service, well trained in the historical aspects of the various sites.‚  I am not aware whether there is a School or College imparting that knowledge. We should have‚  a College for this purpose or even a university degree in Tourism. In India my guide had‚  a good knowledge of history and was very informative.

The guides should also be taught to take care of our artifacts. The last time I went up to Sigiriya frescoes the guides even allowed the tourists to touch the frescoes. The Archelogical‚  guides too have to be trained to attend to security. In India the guides are great at keeping the people away from handling artifacts.

Rental Cars

Unlike other countries where a tourist has to travel a few hundred miles to see mountains and sandy stretches, in Sri Lanka one can get to Nuwara Eliya‚  within hours. For this purpose we should have adequate modes of travel. Many‚  tourists come in groups of less than ten and to cater to that crowd there should be good car and van rental firms that provide a good service. My experience of getting rental cars was a major problem till recently. Either the cars were not roadworthy or they developed defects‚  and I had to get them repaired. Once I had to replace a battery. Another time it was a radiator leak. All this happened out of Colombo and I had to fend for myself hoping that the rental car owner will honour the expenses of the repair. Once it was a Third Party Insurance. This proved to be a nightmare till I went to Kings Rent a Car at Battaramulla where the staff is courteous and the cars are really roadworthy. They even have a service to send the car for collection at the Airport.

In Sri Lanka we do not have a mobile repair service like the AA(Automobile Association)‚  and the RAC in the UK where we can phone in if our car packs in and‚  an automotive engineer will be at hand.‚  Kings Rent A car provides this service to their own rental cars and if necessary they send an immediate replacement. I have never required that service, but it is a necessity.

In every country I travel, I slump into a rental car at the Airport which I return after clocking around three thousand miles.. Our Airport at Katunayake should have the facility of having a number of rental car firms where any tourist can shop around. It would be good if the Airport was to have a separate room to house the rental car companies till we have separate kiosks for them to function when the rental car business develops. In Bangkok each rental car has a kiosk of‚  only‚  ten square feet and all are housed in one row which makes it easy for the tourists to select a car of their choice.

There should be parking facilities for a few cars for each firm at the Airport itself.‚  This is something that can be done immediately.

In Indonesia enamoured by their train service, we took a train to their second city Yogyakarta hoping to find a rental car there. I was disappointed because in Indonesia rental cars can be had only at the Jakarta Airport. I ended travelling by coach and train carrying my luggage which proved a nasty experience.‚  In the case of Sri Lanka there should be car rental firm units in Kandy and Anuradhapura,‚  and First Class travel by trains should be developed for tourists. The scenery that one can enjoy on the Kandy Badulla rail route‚  is not to be missed. In this regard I may state that Indian Railways have developed their Express trains to the maximum providing an excellent service. We have to emulate them.

Restaurants enroute

On all tourist routes there should be restaurants with toilet facilities like what is provided today by the StateSector at Warakapola and by the Private Sector at Ambepussa, where tourists can rest, enjoy a meal and proceed.‚  In my days the Rest Houses run by the Government Agents provided this service ,but today some of these Rest Houses have been developed into luxury hotels.‚  It will be apt for the Tourist Board to map out central spots every thirty miles on every route where this facility could be provided. Existing Restaurants should be guided to provide proper toilet facilities.

Ardous Driving‚ 

Driving in Sri Lanka like driving in Bangkok requires the special ability to figure out that all road rules will never be followed by local drivers. On many an occasion I have had to take my car off the road onto drains in order to avoid an accident. Tourists trying to motor in Sri Lanka should be spared this ordeal. It is necessary that the Police become active to ensure that traffic rules are followed. In my visit a year ago I sensed that the motorists in Colombo adhere to many rules. This has to be followed up to make car driving safe for tourists. In Sri Lanka one cannot even cross the road. I generally cross the road in my car.‚  It takes a drive of a mile or more but unfortunately that is the only way. In Iceland the motorists are extremely careful and in the city they drive at a snails-â„¢ pace. In the UK one dare not go fast. If one gets caught there is a fine and three such instances and one is off the road. Further the car insurance is increased with every traffic offence.. Driving should be an enjoyable exercise.

Road Directions

To develop motoring tourists there have to be ample road markings providing directions at junctions. Road maps should also be available for the country as well as for various cities.

Beaches and Swimming

Our beaches are spectacular sights. These have been publicized and do attract tourists today. Many hotels have cropped up on the Southern coast‚  and in the East at Pasikuda, Arugam Bay, Nellaveli etc.

Beaches and safe seas are a major attraction. Recent newspapers have highlighted many deaths by drowning. Tourists come to enjoy a swim, not to get back in a‚  coffin. Having been a swimmer myself it is a great experience to stretch oneself in the‚  sunny waters. Unfortunately there are various currents, mostly underground and which have to be avoided. Such places have to be made known by boards warning tourists not to bathe there. A year ago I stretched myself in the sea at Mount Lavinia. A few days later I was shaken up when I was told that that was a very dangerous stretch. There should have been a warning sign. At Polhena in Matara adjacent at the marvel of the sea where safe snorkeling can be done there is a deep section in front of the hotels which is not marked as dangerous . This is the spot that took in my friend ASP Peter Gunawardena. Once I was myself involved when we brought a man out of the water and because he was lifeless we rushed him to the Matara Hospital where his life was saved.‚  That day I did carry a dead man to the hospital in my swimming trunk. That was our Health System at its best. At places like MountLavinia Beach during the mornings on week ends there should also be an ambulance in waiting.

Life Saver‚  squads should be available. In my days there was a fully equipped life saving squad at the Mount Lavinia beach. Once someone in distress is spotted this squad gets into action when one swimmer with a rope swims out to the person in distress, grabs him and is hauled to the shore by the squad. I would have been in that squad if not for my books.

While having a life saving squad is costly one can have trained life savers on duty. It is a single person‚  who is a strong swimmer who is trained to snatch the drowning person from behind, how to overpower him and to swim back holding him at a distance. This training is essential because a drowning person grabs the life saver and in many instances the life saver too drowns. This is a difficult expertise and perhaps the Swimming Clubs can offer this expertise.

Murders and Fights

Tourists do not come to get beaten to death. There have been a few‚  such instances which have to be avoided at all costs. A few such instances and we can forget tourism altogether.‚  We have to be serious. Tourism not only brings us foreign exchange; it also brings us employment and incomes to people.

Another matter of great concern is the quality of food. Around fifteen years ago we ordered dinner. I did not like the look of three dishes and sniffed them and found them putrid. I called for the Rest House Keeper and gave him a piece of my mind. That was at the Kitulgala Rest House. Last year‚  one in my party suffered a bad stomach after lunch at the Rakwana Rest House. When I told this to friends they advised me to eat only a vegeterian meal at Rest Houses. In my days‚  public servants always hogged the rest houses for meals and we got feed back. The report of one putrid dish and the rest house keeper lost his job. I read often of fines levied for putrid food at hotels in Colombo. There is no point in fining and we have some idiotic magistrates‚  whose fines are ridiculously low.‚  The only method is to fine and invariably close the restaurant.

Local Tourists

We tend to have forgotten local tourists. Local tourism is also important. In certain countries there are two tarrifs one for the locals and another for foreigners.‚  Today in Sri Lanka‚  local tourism is non existent. The hotel staff tend to cater more to foreign tourists.. Long ago the Tissamaharama Rest House was a hive of activity providing meals and lodging at a reasonable rate for locals. We were at home there whenever we dropped in. Some fifteen years ago I had a nasty experience after the‚  Tissamarama Rest House had been taken over for foreigners. We dropped in to have a cup of tea on our way to Kataragama.‚  We ordered the tea and short eats and waited and waited, reminded and reminded. Finally after thirty minutes we walked away in disgust. The staff were not catering to the local crowd. Since then I avoid that place like the plague. Many of our old rest houses have margined into hotels for the affluent and their staff have this mentality. They want a dollar tip.

That could also be the end of tourism. Sri Lanka attracts very few top range tourists. We generally get in the mid and the budget range. The current economic woes in Western affluent countries have had their effect to reduce the incomes of people in those countries which means less tourists for our countries.

It is a good Chinese saying that one must walk on two legs. It may be a good idea to cater to local tourism too in addition to tourism for foreign customers.‚  Any day that foreigners drop off the local tourists will be there for our hotels. This is a matter for immediate concern. Local tourists need facilities and food at a reasonable rate.‚ ‚  In countries like the USA this local tourism is well developed where there are Motels at very reasonable rates for budget travelers and locals while there are the luxury Marriotts and Hiltons for the super rich.

May the ideas that I have dared to pen‚  help the Tourist industry in our country.

Garvin Karunaratne former Government Agent, Matara

15 th November 2013

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