Focus/Spotlight

National image and the tourism sector

  • AKD lays down NPP’s vision for tourism industry in 2030

By Kiara Warnasuriya

 

Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise, no doubt; but is that sufficient damage control in an unprecedented economic crisis such as this? Not according to Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP) Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who at a seminar titled “Towards A Tourism Economy” on 29 September discussed the importance of the “image” that Sri Lanka portrays to the international community at large. When one thinks of what might possibly attract the average tourist to this little Island, the immediate response is its history, culture, landscape, turquoise waters, sandy beaches, wildlife; the list goes on. 

The tourism industry, Dissanayake said, is one of Sri Lanka’s primary sources of income and a significant contributor to the country’s economy. An economy that is, to no one’s amazement, crumbling. In simple logical terms, these two variables are positively correlated; they increase and decrease together. Drawing attention to the facts and figures, Dissanayake stated: “In the year 2018, Sri Lanka entertained approximately 2.3 million tourists. Further, this industry employs around 400,000 of the working population,” numbers clearly signifying that this industry ought to be placed higher on the country’s priority list and highlighted in its “economic strategy”. He continued to analyse five contributing factors to any country’s economic strategy – location, natural resources, human resources, geopolitics, and civilisation.

Dissanayake observed that in Sri Lanka’s case, tourism as a whole strongly relies on its natural resources, its pristine coastal areas, climatic zones, sights and wonders, biodiversity, and well-known Lankan hospitality.

If the tourist experience of this country is so great, how is it then that it has not been given its rightful place in our economic strategy, was the question that Dissanayake posed, asking why, when tourism is so clearly a powerful tool to this economy, it is not being utilised properly? 

“Tourism needs to spread, it needs to expand,” said the JVP Leader, as he pointed out that this industry is too dependent on Colombo, the country’s commercial capital. Almost all Sri Lanka’s natural resources, sights, and wonders are located outside of Colombo. Thus, he questioned: “Why then is this industry restricted only to Colombo?” 

Dissanayake then drew attention to the answer this industry gives to a long-existing problem Sri Lanka faces – unemployment. 

“Around 1 million of our country’s perfectly able population have ‘chosen’ driving trishaws as means of putting food on the table. The reason for this being, they, the youth in particular, have not been given new economic opportunities to earn a living,” argued Dissanayake. He pointed out that young boys living close to the sea find that their one and only job opportunity is to fish, and the same principle applies to those living on the fields, etc., and asked: “How many new avenues would be open to the same people if the tourist industry actually made its way into the rural areas that technically have much more to offer than Colombo?”

The tourism industry can be undeniably instrumental in solving Sri Lanka’s prevailing economic crisis. However, the necessary and basic facilities and logistics must be provided by the Government, he said. 

“The Government does not own hotels; in fact, I myself wouldn’t own one,” said Dissanayake, as he explained that 90% of the hotels in Sri Lanka are run by the private sector. While it is their job to run this business, it is the Government’s job to support, secure, and protect the industry because the country’s economy thrives on it. 

However, he noted, all good things come with a price; as an industry, tourism is definitely an unstable one because it flows anyway the wind blows. Easily and almost immediately affected by global or local happenings, this industry can go down as much as it can come up. A recent example, as he stated, would be the Covid-19 pandemic. With tourism bringing no income because of travel restrictions, where was Sri Lanka’s back up plan? 

Dissanayake proposed some form of safety fund that the country can rely on when it runs dry. To support his case, Dissanayake touched on the financial crisis of 2007/2008 that started with the collapse of the housing market in the US, following which the US Government released around $ 700,000 to its banks in immediate response. 

“The moral of the story is not to question how smart a move it was, but rather to understand that they had a back-up plan when the occasion called for it,” said Dissanayake, stressing the importance of having a back-up plan. He also explained that tourism and all that surrounds it is effectively related to everyday resources like electricity. “Hotels survive on generators during power failures, but if there is no diesel supplied to these generators, then is this industry really being prioritised or even taken seriously?” 

Dissanayake stressed that it is the Government’s duty to ensure the protection of the tourism industry because the same can protect us in economic crises such as what Sri Lanka is currently facing. To explain his point even further, he referred to the Asia Cup recently held in Dubai, through which Sri Lanka Cricket fetched approximately Rs. 2 million and was initially supposed to be held on home grounds. 

“While hosting the match here would have definitely cost the Government much more, it would have also sent the message out that Sri Lanka was secure and stable enough to visit,” Dissanayake elaborated further. “All in all, it really comes down to a case of priority. From a cricketing point of view, it was undoubtedly a great strategy, but what about the rest of the country? Can Sri Lanka really afford to promote an even more negative image of itself in the international arena that is already under the impression that it is economically struggling?” 

The JVP Leader drew back to how the World Bank’s one worry was when lending Sri Lanka the money to purchase fertiliser was that it would be misused and suddenly go missing, which is why it appointed a team to keep tabs of how the money was being used. The UN, in discussion about protecting the civil and political rights of this country’s citizens, observed that there must first be an economy free of crime that they can protect. Coming back to Dissanayake’s point about the country’s image; Sri Lanka could not be more desperately in need of damage control than it is now, so it is high time people realise that crystal blue waters and elephants are not enough, that we need a better international image that shows good governance, stability, and security. 

Dissanayake concluded: “Our cultural attitude is also a barrier standing in the way of the development of this industry.” Explaining this further, he identified that the female representation in this industry only sums up to about 6%. Pointing at the trend of “beach boys”; he questioned when there have ever been “beach girls” and asked whether Sri Lankan minds could even open up to such an idea. Dissanayake stressed: “We also require attitudinal change if we are to move forward in this industry.”

The JVP Leader claimed that all of this in their new tourism policy will contribute to a better tourism industry by 2030, that while the planning and running of it rests on the private sector, the Government’s duty remains to provide all fundamental requirements.