By Frances Bulathsinghala
Sri Lanka is to look at tourism as a key route to ending poverty in 2017 with the Government having dedicated the year to alleviating poverty and will look at nurturing the industry for it to become Sri Lanka’s number one exchange earner by 2020, Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs John Amaratunga stated last week.
Referring to tourism as ‘the goose that lays the golden eggs,’ he said his Government will not destroy it by haphazard policy making and called for all stakeholders engaged in tourism to be concerned about the village and the common man earning dividends from it.
He made these comments delivering the keynote address at the multi stakeholder consultation on ‘Making Tourism Viable, Sustainable and Inclusive – Opportunities for Research, Policy and Capacity,’ a multi stakeholder consultation organised the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and held at the Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management in Colombo last Thursday.
Amaratunga, speaking on ‘Making Tourism Sustainable and Inclusive,’ said that Sri Lanka has achieved nearly 2.1 million tourist arrivals in 2016 while seven years ago the country was struggling to achieve a mere 500,000 foreigners to visit it and called for more research in order to look at ways of making tourism a sector that works in partnership with and for the wellbeing of local communities of Sri Lanka.
“Linen suppliers, tuk-tuk drivers, cottage industries such as lace making and many other sectors such as the Ayurvedic sectors are all linked to tourism and capacity building and the need for policy and research is wide in order to find better ways to engage the local communities as we develop the tourism industry,” Amaratunga said.
Poverty and environment perspective
CEPA Executive Director Dr. Udan Fernando pointed out that CEPA had taken a special interest in scrutinising the post-war tourism industry of Sri Lanka from the perspective of poverty and environment, emphasising the scope for innovative research on how rural societies such as the poultry farmers, the agriculturist and the fishermen and other communities in the village could benefit from tourism as well as be actively and holistically engaged in the tourism industry.
In a national level evaluative study commissioned by the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) CEPA had critically examined the conceptualisation and implementation of eco-tourism projects with a further exploratory study on climate change, looking at climate change adaptation in the coastal belt and the informal sectors associated with the tourism industry. CEPA is at present carrying out a research study in collaboration with the University of Jaffna examining the motivational dimensions of the diaspora’s investment in Jaffna’s post war tourism sector.
Murtaza Esufally, Chairperson CEPA and Director Hemas Holdings who was chair of last Thursday’s event emphasised the nexus between the Private-Public Partnership support for the tourism industry, especially in impacting poverty reduction in Sri Lanka in its current post conflict context, and thereby extending the potential of tourism to the former war affected regions as well.
Sri Lanka’s immediate competition in tourism was seen as being from countries such as Thailand where the tourist arrival is about 25 million and Cambodia where tourist arrivals currently stands at around five million. Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Maldives were seen as the other immediate competitors which had high numbers of tourists per year.
Tourism should be an educative experience
The importance of looking at tourism as an entity that is linked with the development of public infrastructure, safeguarding of environment as well as protection of local culture and livelihood was highlighted, with the High Commissioner of Canada Shelley Whiting, the Chief Guest at the occasion pointing out that tourism should be an educative experience of the country, its customs and its people.
She noted that Sri Lanka being listed as one of the 20 hottest luxury tourism destinations in 2017 by business media conglomerate Bloomberg was an incentive to protect its natural resources especially tourist related resources such as its national parks.
Drawing on her experience of living, working and travelling in Sri Lanka for the past four years and having travelled both first and second class in local trains, Whiting spoke of the importance of infrastructure development and maintenance , emphasising that tourism infrastructure includes public washrooms and its proper maintenance.
Speaking of the tourism experience of Canada, which has been listed by Lonely Planet as the top country to visit in 2017, she explained how Canada is in the process of developing its aboriginal cultural tourism which covers a holistic understanding and education of the country.
With Sri Lanka’s goal being four million tourists by 2020, the country’s potential for its tourism industry to be youth driven was stressed. It was pointed out that around half of the tourism jobs in Canada are held by youth and that the Canadian tourism industry has identified and prioritised comprehensive research to understand and approach the challenges of tourism.
Sustainable development and wellbeing of local communities
Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority Chairman Paddy Withana in his remarks as Guest of Honour reiterated the interconnected nature of tourism and the many avenues to link it with sustainable development and wellbeing of local communities. He cited the ‘home stay’ approach introduced in Sri Lanka where tourists stay at the homes of the locals, as a highly successful model.
“The country is at peace today and this is a concept that could be promoted throughout the island. The ordinary people should benefit from tourism; if not it is pointless pursuing tourism,” Withana said, adding that capacity building and training should be part of the tourism industry by all stakeholders.
“Recently we started looking at Kuchchaveli in Trincomalee to see how we can support local communities to improve tourism in the area. Some years back we started a project in Unawatuna where we helped local communities selling swim wear to foreigners to improve their products in terms of choice such as colour and design and their sales significantly increased. We must remember that SMEs generate more than 70% of the Sri Lankan GDP,” he said.
The concerns around tourism in the north and east of the country and complaints that opportunities from the tourism industry are not being given to the youth of the north and east are being addressed and should continue to be looked into by all those concerned, he said, stating that the Tourist Board is providing training to north-eastern youth, enabling them to take up jobs that are emerging in the hotel trade in the region.
The low average spending of a foreigner amounting to around $ 165 was cited as something Sri Lanka should look at as a challenge to get the correct mix of high spending as well as the younger bag-packer type of tourist. The Bandaranaike International Airport being partially closed for about three months for repairs of its runway and the National Carrier, SriLankan, having pulled out from three or four important cities of the world were cited as obstacles that could somewhat impact tourism in 2017.
Research, policy and capacity building
The panel discussion ‘Moving on: An agenda for research, policy and capacity building’ offered interesting insights into the many areas where tourism could be improved in Sri Lanka with practice based as well as practice led research, especially in areas such as volunteer-tourism as carried out through foreign university affiliations by the Sarvodaya Movement.
The panellists who led the session were Krishan Balendra, President, Leisure Industry Group – John Keells Group; Malraj Kiriella, Director General, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority; Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary, Sarvodaya; and Dr. Suranga Silva, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Colombo.
On the importance of research linked to the industry, the discussion centred on how to get the correct theoretical and practice based mix to look at tourism research that will help understand the sector in a multi-pronged dimension.
Balendra pointed out how the John Keells Group works in Yala on the human-leopard conflict and follows the stipulation that 40 to 60% of the hotel staff should come from the local community of the area. The need to prevent haphazard construction that causes a host of environmental problems were also discussed along with the need to minimise certain negative impacts of tourism such as the undue rise of prices of goods in locations that are heavily saturated with tourism.
“Some cultures have lost their culture due to tourism where tourism has reached saturation levels and seen as no longer positively helping the country. Therefore the emphasis should be on the quality of tourism and the earning capacity through it for local communities, without degradation of their culture,” Dr. Silva noted and referred to a recent research done in Sri Lanka on the value added for the tourism industry in kitchen items. The research findings had shown that more than 52% of kitchen items including food items were from other countries and even the fruits used were often imported fruit.
Speaking on the role of research in finding out deterrents to tourism, Dr. Silva referred to a research in Hikkaduwa where the key research question was ‘what is the most unwanted thing that you have to deal with in the area?’ and the answer from the majority of the people was ‘stray dogs’.
The need for bringing together academia, the hotel industry and other stakeholders for an ongoing dialogue on collectively improving the tourism industry was expressed as a key requirement. Another issue that was raised was some hotels not recruiting from certain Sri Lankan academic institutes because they perceive an inadequacy such as lack of English and thereby do not play any role in providing a chance for youth for improving their capacities in the tourism sector.
Capitalise on the country’s diversity
Comparing Sri Lanka’s new milestone of 2.1 million tourists with tourist arrivals of countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand which run into millions more, what was highlighted was how Sri Lanka could create its niche in post war tourism and capitalise on the country’s diversity. It was however pointed out that Sri Lanka is today where Thailand was fifteen years ago in terms of tourist visitors to the country and that with diligent effort and correct policy making, Sri Lanka could aspire to follow the example of countries such as Thailand.
Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne added much insight into the discussion by sharing the experience of Sarvodaya in facilitating agro-tourism as well as volunt-tourism where young volunteers of other countries live and engage in community service for short times in Lankan villages.
“We are careful to prevent any untoward incident that will affect the culture of the village. We have particularly taken care to prevent incidents such as child abuse where a single incident would be enough to disrupt all the good that has been done. Therefore, we plan these visits by the foreign youth batches of volunteers early. A team leader will visit the location in Sri Lanka where the youth volunteers are to be based and study the cultural context and will be briefed by us. Even for a simple thing such as photographing we urge people to follow certain rules. We work by prioritising the importance of feedback, not just from the visitors but importantly from the local community,” Dr. Ariyaratne explained.
“The important aspect is what the local host community gains from this experience as well, apart from the monetary benefits. We recently had a group from Palestine and they were refugee leaders and the sharing of the two cultures were really important for both the groups,” he said.
While the concerns of the low levels of interest of females in joining the hospitality industry was one of the issues highlighted, Dr. Ariyaratne pointed out that nearly 30 to 40% of those who had applied for training in the hospitality industry carried out by Sarvodaya in Jaffna were women.
Among the other issues and concerns raised in the discussion that ensued was the need to maintain standards in all products offered by the tourism industry and the maintenance as well as promotion of all twenty two national parks in Sri Lanka and not just Yala and Wilpattu, which are generally the more popular.
The event ended with an agreement to follow up on the topics discussed to look at the new initiatives and potential areas of research that may have been taken as a result of the CEPA event.
– Pix by Upul Abayasekera