Arugam Bay Tourism in Transition

By Bernard Goonetilleke …..go to Buy trazodone for insomnia Arugam Bay in the east, for an experience of a lifetime in surfing……

Bernard Goonetilleke

Sri Lanka Tourism declared 2011 as ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year,’ in June last year. Former Tourism Minister, Milinda Moragoda, took this forward-looking decision, well before Sri Lanka’s return to normalcy following the end of the decades-long armed conflict in mid May 2009. That decision was a calculated one, and certainly was not based on flimsy anticipation of changes to occur, for the minister fully recognized the difficult ground situation during the first quarter of 2009 resulting from the world economic crisis. But, for him, the need to revive Sri Lanka’s long-suffering tourist industry, hamstrung by the conflict, was of highest priority. Cheap bupron hcl In June 2009, a jubilant President Rajapaksa, in his message to mark the launch of Sri Lanka Tourism’s new brand and logo, set an ambitious target of 2.5 million tourists by 2016, said, “I trust the new direction of Sri Lanka Tourism will position Sri Lanka as a premier tourist destination of Asia.” Following that he declared 2011 as ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year.’ Minister Moragoda’s choice of the year 2011 is totally fitting, and in hindsight, amazingly visionary. It was clear to him that Sri Lanka’s conflict that had raged for nearly three decades, would end sooner than later. Against that background, he thought it was prudent to prepare the ground for a promotional campaign to rebrand and reposition Sri Lanka as the premier tourist destination of Asia, as the president later pointed out. There were other compelling reasons as well. One was the ‘Cricket World Cup’ scheduled to take place in 2011, with Sri Lanka been chosen as a location for several games. Needless to say, the World Cup would, not only bring to Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of cricket fans from all over the world, but also provide a vicarious opportunity to millions of cricket fans glued to their televisions throughout the series, to feast their eyes on the paradise island in the Indian Ocean, and get lured to visit. That is not all. Year 2011 has particular significance for Sri Lanka Tourism. Sri Lanka’s cautious entry into the world of tourism took place in 1966, with the passage of Tourism Act No. 10 of 1966. That was exactly 45 years earlier, and five years short of a half a century. Both president Rajapaksa and Minister Moragoda shared a common view. That was that Sri Lanka is a unique tourist destination, with immense potential for development, but stymied by factors beyond the control of the industry or the country. Despite the attractions the country has to offer tourists, since 1983, the arrival figures were short of half a million, with the exception of 2004, when the country recorded more than 550,000 visitors. Yet, that figure was much less than the natural growth, if one was to take 1983 figure as the base. On the other hand, countries such as Cambodia and Laos had recorded impressive tourist arrival figures since the wars in those two countries ended. Sri Lanka, blessed with natural beauty, history and monuments that go back to pre-Christian era, and bewitching diversity in fauna and flora, certainly has better tourist potential than many countries in the region. The popular view was that a booming tourist industry serves only a handful of well-established conglomerates. Others think that tourism is synonymous with bright lights in five star hotels, cocktails and canapA?s. In essence, they thought that tourism is a rich man’s pastime, with no benefits trickling down to the man on the street. However, Minister Moragoda was clear on tourism’s role in the economy. In an interview published in the July 2009 edition of ‘Business Today,’ the Minister made him clear. He said, ” As a whole, it comprises a wide variety of business in a variety of sizes from blue-chip to micro -enterprises, including business, services and operators such as airlines, railways, coaches, and cruise ships, tour operators, hoteliers, guides, destination management companies, conference organisers, events planners, restaurateurs, retailers, street vendors, king coconut vendors- to name only a few.” This view runs parallel to that of Amitabh Khan, chief architect of ‘Incredible India,’ who voiced his thoughts in his book ‘Branding India- An incredible Story’: ‘The chasm between potential and performance was widened as a result of various factors, the worst being the perception that tourism was an elitist activity set in the background of five-star hotels, recreation and pleasure. Somehow the actual benefits of tourism- its multiplier effect on employment, infrastructure, and community growth-all seemed to have been miserably lost.’ Yes, Minister Morogoda did mention among the many who would benefit from tourism, the king coconut vendors, who would display bunches

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of golden- hued nuts to the delight of visitors. The list is endless. The reference to king coconut sellers perhaps better explains the trickledown effect of tourism and its positive impact on lives, from marble- floored ballrooms in five star hotels, with glittering chandeliers in the city, to simple wattle and daub abodes of vendors selling handicraft to lace products in rural Sri Lanka. There are 125,000 Sri Lankans who directly or indirectly make a living from tourism. This figure does not take into account the informal sector that provides exotic fruits, fresh vegetables, harvest from the sea, flowers from the hill country, and, of course, the inimitable king coconut to quench the thirst of tourists with tanned skins and parched throats. If the average number of persons depending on one breadwinner is taken as four, we are talking in excess of 600,000 people who depend on tourism for a living. If we achieve the target of 2.5 million people benefiting from tourism, which is close to a fivefold increase from the current figure, we are talking of three million people depending on tourism by 2016. In fact, those who are currently in the trade and understand it know that this is a rather conservative figure, and that the real numbers should be well above this. Minister Moragoda, who had a vision for the tourism industry, understood reality. “In a glamorous industry such as tourism, the temptation can be to focus on the PR, rather than the substance,” was his conclusion after a thorough study of the industry to address this tendency, he concentrated on policy- making as well as institution and capacity-building. That he did by giving effect to the Tourism Act No 38 of 2005, which, though adopted by parliament, was not implemented for nearly two years, until October 2007. In doing so, he set in motion four institutions to charter the course of the industry, viz. Tourism Development Authority, the apex body; Tourism Promotion Bureau, the promotional arm; the Convention Bureau, responsible for promoting MICE related activities; and the Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, to provide formal training for young men and women with an aptitude for the hospitality industry. It is true that splitting up the former Ceylon Tourist Board that had endured for over four decades was not an easy decision. In fact, more than two years later, there are debates, still, whether it was indeed a prudent decision. However, rather than trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, what needs to be done is to transform those institutions into cutting edge establishments to serve an increasingly competitive industry. The tourism industry is dominated by big international players with massive budgets in comparison to the meagre one billion rupee budget; Sri Lanka Tourism’s four institutions have to share. For instance, India’s budget for promotional work was IRs. 15.71 crore for 2002-2003. The allocation was increased to IRs. 220 crore for 2008-2009, a phenomenal expansion of 14 times, with half of that figure earmarked for the ‘Incredible India’ campaign! An important feature of Minister Moragoda’s tenure as head of Sri Lanka Tourism was his hands- off policy on day to- day work. While focusing on how to prop up a waning industry during a crisis time, he concentrated on the macro-vision and policymaking, to breathe new life to the industry. While doing so, he gave free rein in decision-making, to the senior officials of the ministry and of the four institutions. Explaining his policy, he said, “I believe, the spotlight should not be on the Minister, but on the team of professionals, who do the hard work. It is for this reason that I allow the officials to carry out the Ministry media briefings, make official announcements, and speak to the media – while I concentrate on the macro-vision and policy making.” In short, his policy was let the experts do what they have been hired to do, without political interference from the minister or his inner cabinet. “Think big” was President Rajapaksa’s message to the industry. Thinking big was not a big deal for those who were well experienced in the trade and had been engaged in it for decades. However, thinking big, by itself, was not good enough; the industry also had to act big. But that was not possible in the backdrop Sri Lanka’s tourism industry had been operating in for decades. In fact, having gone through three decades of conflict, the global economic crisis resulting from 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, the second world economic crisis in 2008 (not second to the Great Depression in the 1930s), and the escalating armed conflict since the second half of 2006, the industry was virtually tottering, and was on the verge of collapse by 2009. The big issue for some establishments was whether to close down temporarily, and how to retrench service personnel, whose livelihood depended on the health of the industry. Tourism, in its entirety, is a private sector driven industry, which was Sri Lanka’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner in 2008, but slipped to sixth position in 2009. While the state had an important role to play in the industry, it was limited to developing strategy. The delivery of services was solely in the hands of the private sector. It did not take time for Minister Moragoda to understand the symbiotic relationship between these two crucial sectors. “if the two aren’t working together or agreeing on a common way forward, then we have a problem.” That was how he saw the critical role of the private sector. He cemented this collaborative effort by bringing in the best in the private sector to serve in the management boards of the four institutions functioning under the ministry. Indeed they were not only experts in their fields, but represented different industry related trade associations. What’s more, with the exception of the Tourism Development Authority, the private sector represented the majority of boards of management, brining in knowledge and expertise to these crucially important institutions. Further, Minister Moragoda thoughtfully appointed an Advisory Committee consisting of senior personalities with wide experience and exposure to tourism related sectors, to advice him as well as the institutions functioning under the ministry. His devotion to detail could be observed by a novel step he took to seek advice from different quarters. This he did by setting up a Maha Sangha Advisory Council to guide the ministry in its activities. The Council met on a regular basis during the tenure of Minister Moragoda, and at its last meeting held in Anuradhapura, in early 2009, discussed many issues relating to the industry, including the launching of a new brand to promote the island as a desired tourist destination. Minister Moragoda’s transition from tourism to justice came at a time when the industry that was in doldrums, was making a gradual recovery, with the end of the separatist conflict that had sapped the lifeblood from the economy of the country. More than three-quarters of a year has passed since that momentous event. It is time for us to ask ourselves, “How close are we to the target set by President Rajapaksa in June 2009, and what needs to be done to realize that objective and make tourism the top foreign exchange earning industry?” Specific and quantifiable targets indeed matter. There was a time, when a president in the United States gave a target to NASA to put a man on the moon, and that institution met that target. But target setting by itself means next to nothing, unless those responsible for the task are facilitated to achieve what is expected of them. To meet the target of 2.5 million arrivals for 2016, it is calculated that Sri Lanka needs additional 36,000 rooms. Hotels cannot materialize from thin air. We need capital to build hotels, and the cost of a three, four and five star hotel room is in the range of Rs. 7.5 million, Rs. 10 million and Rs. 15 million respectively, making an average of US$94,000/ per room. That is an investment of $ 3.4 billion, without taking into account, inflation in the years to come. Surely, the Sri Lankan private sector does not have access to that kind of resources. To realize our dream or to achieve the target given, we have to attract foreign investors, particularly hotel chains, back to the country. The question is, are we geared to undertake this stupendous task? Is our country investment- friendly enough, to attract three and half billion dollars in six years just for one sector? Can the bureaucracy and red tape involved in obtaining dozens of the permits be minimized, rather than driving investors from pillar to post over a period of a year, if not more, to begin construction? Can we have a fresh look at the policy restricting the sale of liquor in tourist hotels and restaurants involving specific days and times, in keeping with our competitors in the neighbourhood, so that a visitor to the country could enjoy his holiday, without violating the government policy of not encouraging its citizens to imbibe? Should we not take steps to improve our infrastructure such as roads, which demands ten hours of bone-jarring journey, from the international airport to Arugam Bay in the east, for an experience of a lifetime in surfing? Good roads will also ensure that a tourist would not have to take the same amount of time to reach Arugam Bay from the airport that he took to reach the island in the sun from a European destination. How do we put distant places in the country as the Deep South, the east and the north, within less than an hour’s travel, if we do not develop our regional airports such as Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Anuradhapura, Putlam etc? Should we not focus on these as top priority during the course of this year, before the ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year’ dawns in 2011? Is our priority the number of arrivals in a specific year, or the quantum of foreign exchange we earn during the course of that year, and if the latter is the case, how do we attract high spenders in place of back packers? These are the questions we should not only ask ourselves, but also find answers to. We have a president who has made tourism a priority. We had three ministers in charge of tourism within a short space of six months. We have an industry served by well-experienced and dedicated personnel. We have officials in the Ministry of Tourism and related institutions, who can turn the industry around, provided there are concentrated efforts involving all parties concerned. To get the industry moving, we need a cohesive body of officials at decision-making level representing various government institutions. A preliminary step was taken in this regard by the Presidential Secretariat last year. If that mechanism is made operational and empowered, there is a fair chance of achieving the set target. We have less than nine months for the D-Day, in the form of ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year’. Enabling steps to make Sri Lanka the most preferred destination in Asia should have been taken months ago, and not months from now. (The writer, was the former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management.)

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