In the wake of intense promotions to attract Chinese travellers to Sri Lanka, Chinese-run companies are giving tours of Sri Lanka to their nationals causing a stir among the local tourism industry. Chinese nationals have established at least six unregistered Destination Management Companies (DMCs) in Sri Lanka most of which are unlicensed and this number has been growing since a year ago, Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasam told the Business Times.
Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) Chairman Rohantha Athukorala commenting on this new development pointed out that since the tourism landscape is fast changing there needs to be reforms set in place to ensure that these organisations and any other entity operating as DMCs follow the rules and regulations.
He noted that certain reforms have to happen in line with the changing dynamics in view of the fact that almost 49 per cent of the business is from the informal sector and most bookings were taking place offshore through online travel agencies. The SLAITO chief noted that when these agencies flourish they could become competitive against the more established ones in Sri Lanka and were working against the laws of the land.
He said that should this continue they could attract more visitors as they do not have to pay taxes to the government and in this respect become cheaper and might not even bring in money to the country but take it back home to China. In this respect, SLAITO has established a 6-member committee comprising industry members to examine the issue.
The influx of Chinese tourists has resulted in some Chinese nationals acting as interpreters and guides violating local laws, Mr. Kairyawasam said. He explained that the malpractices they were involved in were in conducting tours in Sri Lanka without a local guide license; exchanging currency while on tour; obtaining commissions from gem and souvenir shops; and using commissions to offset tour expenses resulting in loss of foreign exchange.
In addition these Chinese agents were believed to be operating without valid visa status and in certain instances were using a visa which was non-related to tourism to engage in tourism related activities. Moreover, making ground arrangements and promoting or conducting tour is individually without using a registered DMC, he said.
Even as a registered entity, Mr. Kariyawasam noted foreign nationals according to local laws could only have a stake of less than 51 per cent in DMCs and not have full ownership. It was pointed out that a loophole in the local laws has caused them to establish themselves in Sri Lanka by simply registering with the local authority.
He said they met SLTDA Chairman Paddy Vithana and Dr. Athukorala and the SLTDA has assured an inquiry.
One such business operated by a Chinese national the Business Times spoke with on Friday said she was based here on a residence visa since she was previously employed in the tourism industry.
But now for the past six months she has been running her own travel agency with a local partner to bring down about 200 Chinese tourists per month to the country, it was noted. Chinese are among the highest tourists found holidaying in Sri Lanka since the past few years.
In fact, locals also have opened travel agencies and although these were not registered with the SLTDA they were quick to have obtained registration for their businesses in China in a bid to lure the tourists.