|Monday, 21 April 2003|
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A better future for the tourism industry
Sri Lanka has been on travellers' wish lists for centuries. Our 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' has been a magnet for discerning travellers from around the world. Ours is an island with everything from sea and sand to natural and cultural sights.
Naturally, tourism is one of our major revenue earners. Right now, we hear the good news that there is a sharp increase in tourist arrivals, thanks to frequent direct flights from Europe and the SARS outbreak in South East Asia.
Sri Lanka's tourism industry reached a nadir after the attack on the International Airport in July 2001. Airlines pulled out, passenger numbers plummeted and Lanka was blacklisted in travel advisories issued in many leading tourist markets. The agony was compounded by September 11. Although the Twin Towers attack took place half a world away, its overall impact on the travel industry overwhelmed small countries like Sri Lanka.
Things took a turn for the better after the government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement, silencing the guns that had been the biggest bane of the country's tourism industry. Sri Lanka recorded a peak in tourist arrivals in 1982. Next year, the war broke out and tourist arrivals nosedived. The war kept away millions of potential visitors for nearly 20 years.
The prevailing peaceful atmosphere has allayed these fears, leading to a surge in interest in Sri Lanka among travellers. Sri Lanka has again become one of the top destinations in the world. In fact, one British newspaper even included Sri Lanka in a list of 'places to see before you die'.
Authorities and the hospitality industry should concentrate on adding to this momentum and solving outstanding problems that impede the growth of tourism. One of the biggest problems facing the industry is the lack of airline seats into Colombo. More airlines should be encouraged to fly in and those already operating to Colombo persuaded to increase their frequencies. The authorities must also ensure that Colombo becomes a regular port of call for cruise ships which usually carry more affluent passengers than the average chartered flight.
The tapping of new tourism markets is essential. China, which recently granted destination status to Sri Lanka, was a major breakthrough. Before trying to penetrate far-way markets, the industry should look at attracting more regional visitors especially from countries which have religious ties with Sri Lanka. The easing of visa restrictions saw a virtual explosion in arrivals of Indians and hopefully, more visitors will come from other SAARC countries as well.
In developing the industry, we cannot be oblivious to developments in our region.
The SARS virus is sweeping across the globe, taking down tourism industries with it. Since the disease has been spread by air travellers, all precautions must be taken at entry points themselves to ensure that infected persons do not enter the country.
While striving to develop inbound tourism, the industry must not underestimate the importance of domestic tourism. After all, it is the locals who kept the industry alive during the dark days of insurgencies and the war. Tourist hotels should have more affordable packages for local travellers. The construction of more hotel facilities for locals is also welcome.
The success of all these endeavours will depend on one critical factor: Peace. We have already seen that it can do wonders for tourism. A lasting solution to the ethnic conflict will certainly spur the industry to even greater heights.
Produced by Lake House