Focus on reviving vital tourism sector | Daily News

Focus on reviving vital tourism sector

Sri Lanka, the small island that floats in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia because it contains a mixture of unique wildlife, golden beaches, a rich cultural heritage and amazingly surreal landscapes. Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic destination full of culture, nature, wildlife and smiling faces. The island is actually home to some of the friendliest people on Earth.

Over the last few months Sri Lankans lived a quite a free life without having the COVID-19 pandemic in their minds. The schools were reopened and the travel destinations got full with locals as the restrictions were relaxed after months of lockdown and isolation. Also with the vaccination process having progressed people started becoming ‘fearless’ of the virus. However with the new variants of corona, the country has again faced a massive challenge.

When considering the freedom of movement that Sri Lankans was enjoying, we have to take a hard look at the treacherous COVID-19 pandemic threat that has put Sri Lanka into dire straits. According to health authorities, the COVID threat still exists and we have to continue playing a game of hide and seek with the deadly corona fiend. Amidst the alarming surge in Corona infections, health officials have placed several areas under isolation orders. According to health authorities, the next three weeks would be crucial and they have asked people to follow health safety guidelines strictly.

The eruption was the result of inter-provincial travel, shopping in crowded bazaars and get-togethers during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year despite the warnings by health authorities. Sub-clusters have emerged from many places.

When will we recover from this unusual crisis? When will we be able to live the normal life that we were leading till this treacherous attack came upon us? Sri Lanka is a small country but with all the necessary assets that are needed for the people to lead a contented and happy life. The country’s economy has gone haywire and everyone seems to be affected by it. Private companies have stopped their production activities and have retrenched staff. The Sri Lankan economy that depends on foreign exchange earned by workers in the Middle East and from the tourist industry, has been hit hard.

Sri Lanka entered the international tourism market in the 1960s. Since then the industry has been growing steadily as a promising sector for economic development, subject to periodical setbacks – especially the civil war that prevailed in the island, world terrorist attacks and natural disasters. The contribution of the tourism economy to employment was 503,000 jobs. The contribution for real GDP growth from tourism was 5.9 percent and tourism investment was worth Rs. 131 billion.

The tourism industry, badly hurt by Easter day bombings, was hit by a harder blow by COVID-19. The tourism sector, one of the premier revenue earners suffered a massive blow following the April 21, 2019 extremist militant bombings of churches and luxury hotels that killed over 250 people including 42 foreign nationals. Due to this carnage tourists from Europe and Asia-Pacific who accounted for 90 percent of the total visitors to Sri Lanka nearly halved, according to data given by the Tourism Development Authority. Widespread travel restrictions and the closure of airports and national borders to curb the spread of the deadly Coronavirus had plunged world tourism into its worst crisis.

Tourism holds a greater significance in the services sector and has been a driver of growth for the country’s economy. The tourism sector which makes a massive contribution to the national economy should be revitalised to suit the present crisis. According to official data, revenue from the tourism sector in the first half of 2019 has fallen to 13.4 percent to US$ 1.89 billion.

Considering the importance of the tourism sector to the country’s economy, the Government’s decision to merge the four institutions handling tourism into one institution will be a force that will help the revival of tourism. Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism Kimarli Fernando says the current tourism structure is counterproductive with wastage of resources in terms of financial and human capital. She further says that having chaired all four institutions in the past 14 months, she had witnessed the wastage and the lack of coordination among tourism institutions and how inefficient this structure was.

The structure has failed to reach the consumer; instead it focused on roadshows spending nearly Rs. one billion in 2019 and that too had not been shared with all stakeholders. There is no acceptable return on investment, she added.

The new Act would be in line with Global Best Practices including Singapore which has one organisation with 19.1 million tourist arrivals in 2019. The new arrangement will give Sri Lanka Tourism the power to handle the tourism sector better.

Around 78.9 percent of tourists come to Sri Lanka to escape from the harsh winter. Most of them are middle income earners. Nearly 12.7 percent visited Sri Lanka for business requirements and 5.4 percent visited to meet their relations and friends. Most tourists are attracted by our Ayurvedic treatments and spa services because they have to pay large amounts in their countries for such services.

Large numbers of tourists have arrived in Sri Lanka from European nations. They have selected this country for their seasonal vacations. Most of them highly appreciate our hospitality, accommodations, our charges and new innovations in the industry. The country’s growing reputation is drawing visitors from an increasingly diverse range of markets to its pristine beaches, historic landmarks and adventure-packed outdoors.

Building on this success, the Government is now aiming to position Sri Lanka as Asia’s leading island destination, focusing on high-value segments such as cultural tourism and tour packages for visitors aged 60 and up. The Government’s Tourism Vision 2025, under discussion, aims to improve management, investment in assets and infrastructure, and draw Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the industry.

Following the Easter Sunday terror attacks in April 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given priority to the recovery of the country’s tourism industry, reflecting the industry’s ability to contribute to the development of the overall economy.

During a meeting with the members of the Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication, the President said the tourism sector which makes a huge contribution to the national economy should be revitalised to suit the changing situations.

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga was quoted by local media as saying that a new long-term marketing plan to boost tourism would be drawn up for consideration within the next few weeks. Minister Ranatunga said the Government would allocate nearly US$ one million over the next four months to revive tourism and the short term action plan was being finalised.

Under the plan, 12 new tourist attraction sites identified in several districts would be developed while community tourist villages would also be developed.

Despite COVID-19, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga who is determined to develop the tourism industry has said that airports would function and tourist arrivals would continue. He said that no decision had been taken yet to limit the repatriation process of Sri Lankans despite the increase of COVID-19 patients. Tourists arriving here are subject to PCR tests and a 14-day quarantine period.

The tourists who come here visit many wildlife parks such as Yala, Wilpattu and Kumana. Then they visit Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Yapahuwa. Tourists stop over to see wonderful creations, paintings and ruins of great buildings and monuments.

The attractive waterfalls in Sri Lanka are another draw. Dunhinda, Diyaluma and Bambarakanda are attractions that thousands of tourists visit annually.

While the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya and Haggala attract many tourists, the hot water wells in Kanniya, the World’s End in Nuwara Eliya and the natural harbour in Trincomalee are some of the other attractive places tourists like to visit. These sites are places that make us to be proud of the beauty of our country. Mist covered mountains draped with carpets of tea, rare and priceless gemstones, rainforests, cave temples, a fortress in the sky, wildlife and marine parks, religious pageants and ancient wellness treatments are among the fabulous attractions offered to the tourists.

Sri Lanka is famous worldwide for its unique cuisine. There is an extremely wide selection to choose from. Sri Lankan cuisine offers the palate mild and delicately flavoured dishes to hot and fiery ones. The dishes are flavoured with an assortment of herbs and spices, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and curry leaves. Kiribath (unsweetened milk-rice) and string hoppers are exotic dishes which are very popular among tourists.

Sri Lanka is extremely rich in terms of culture. With festivals taking place throughout the year, there is a never-ending stream of joyful occasions filled with song, dance and laughter. The Esala Festival is usually held in July/August in the ancient hill capital of Kandy. Great processions parade the roads of this beautiful city which was the last standing kingdom of the country, with magnificently garbed elephants, fire walkers, Kandyan dancers, spinning plates, all to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.

Greeting the tourists with ‘Ayubowan’ when they arrive will help out in all their needs to be taken care of. Years of hardship during the war and after the devastating tsunami which occurred in 2004 failed to wipe the smile out of Sri Lankan faces. With peace returning, the beautiful country is becoming the tourist paradise it used to be.

The island is tiny yet its features are impressively diverse. Tourists can enjoy so many activities in so little time. The Cultural Triangle in its entire historical splendour is just a few hours away from the lush, tropical rainforests which in turn lie a few kilometres away from the glorious sun, sea and sand. Because of this unique advantage, the wonders of the island can be experienced in just a few days.

But the dream of a grand revival of the tourism industry was shattered with the recent and sudden rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 victims in Colombo, Kurunegala and many areas that have been turned into lockdown areas. This painful development was the result of the sudden freedom people got during the New Year period. People without any self-control indulged in shopping sprees and went visiting relatives without any concern about the COVID threat.

We have to be cautious about tackling the deadly virus. If we are able to counter the recent upheaval like how we controlled it earlier, we can again dream of a revival of the tourism industry.

First we must treat this as a pilot project and implement the proposals for countries which have allowed their citizens to visit Sri Lanka. Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany, Russian Federation and China were Sri Lanka’s top five international tourist generating markets in February this year. Appointing a special officer to our embassies in those countries to promote Sri Lanka as a suitable tourist destination can be suggested as a sound proposal. This special officer should have a marketing background and should not be somebody’s somebody. The selected persons should be qualified, motivated and willing to work hard in promoting Sri Lanka as a unique destination.

In addition, colourful brochures should be published to be given to the interested parties wanting to visit Sri Lanka. For example, photographs of our lovely beaches can be published in a brochure with short write ups and also the names with telephone numbers of the hotels situated close to each beach included.

Brochures (print and online) also can be published on culture, gems and jewellery, wildlife parks and other such places in Sri Lanka for the benefit of visitors who are interested in visiting these places. In this way we will be able to lure more and more tourists to Sri Lanka and get out of this crisis.