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Divide us not, unite us, says SLAITO

Sri Lanka’s tourism sector had to grapple with a series of challenges in the past. Despite the difficulties, the industry has been successful in coming out stronger with every impact.

Since the end of the war, the sector that went on to invest heavily in making Sri Lanka a sought-after destination, managed to capitalise on the peace dividends for about a decade, which came to a stop with the 2019 Easter Sunday attack and then to an almost grinding halt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In previous instances, during the crisis, the relevant state authorities and private sector worked hand in hand to revive the hard-hit industry, which was successfully achieved but this time round, the efforts towards the revival have not been easy, due to a very noticeable divide between the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and private sector, which encompasses different segments across the industry.

The disharmony is open for the public to see with the authority going on record stating how detrimental it has been for the industry when the private sector intervenes.

Keeping private sector out Events in the recent months showed that the private sector players were kept in the dark on a number of issues, despite them sitting on the boards of Sri Lanka Tourism. According to the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), a segment of the industry that plays a key role in bringing in tourism to the country, much of the hiccups faced could have been avoided only if the other representatives and their views were heard.

“We have to give credit to Sri Lanka Tourism for the areas they have been concentrating on, such as liaising with the health authorities and having a structured plan for the incoming tourists.

But we feel that had there been a dialogue with the industry while talking to the COVID taskforce, they (Sri Lanka Tourism) would have come out with a much better implementation plan. The additional costs incurred by tourists, such as for PCR, could have been avoided,” said SLAITO Chairman Thilak Weerasinghe in a discussion with Mirror Business.

He pointed out that the ground realities can only be presented by the private sector, which interacts with the tourists and in the absence of that dialogue, the actual scenario was not captured, thus resulting in the charted action plan to be executed in an ad hoc manner.

“It is rather unfortunate. And the sad reality is that this is continuing,” asserted Weerasinghe. He pointed out the ministry cannot be blamed, as it is being misguided with the numbers, that have not been analysed to present the reality of the situation.

Furthermore, while allegations have been levelled against the industry representatives that they want to hold on to board positions, Weerasinghe clarified that there is no such interest, as there is no personal agenda to fulfil by doing so.

“We are actually running a risk by serving on the board and we don’t take a single penny by attending those board meetings. We only want to be involved in the process and be made aware of the thought process behind the decisions taken,” he said.

Amending Tourism Act: Why so hush hush? The industry was already facing one shock after another with the double whammy but a jolt was felt when it learnt that the Tourism Act has been proposed to be amended in a manner that would keep the private sector representatives out of most of the key decisions made for the industry.

Some of the changes the initial proposal included were removing the private sector from the board positions of Sri Lanka Tourism and them having no say on how the Tourism Development Levy (TDL), which is contributed by the private players, will be spent.

According to Weerasinghe, who occupies a seat as the SLAITO chief, no mention was ever made during the meetings or was any draft officially circulated.

What the private representatives had a glimpse of was a draft of the amended act that was leaked. “We are unsure if the document was leaked purposefully for not but looking at the changes it brings about; we see dangers for the industry,” he said.

In an effort to ensure the act is amended in a manner that facilitates the industry, the private sector stakeholders, under the One Industry One Voice banner, shared with the Tourism Ministry a 25-point suggestion list, which is imperative to be taken into account.

Weerasinghe said that the fact that the change was not welcome was communicated to Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, who in turn affirmed that all changed would be shared with the private sector. However, the SLDTA is yet to acknowledge its inputs in this regard.

“It is only through the minister that we received a brief on why and how the act will be amended. This is the role of the SLTDA to bring us in but it has not happened,” said Weerasinghe.

“So, when things have been done hush hush, there is reasonable doubt,” he added.

Need of hour The local tourism sector, in the current juncture, is in need of the right leadership to steer it through and out of the pandemic, Weerasinghe said, speaking on behalf of the industry stakeholders.

“We need the right leadership, who is capable of looking after everyone in the industry. Some of us can survive but a lot many can’t. They must be heard; their inputs must be taken into account,” stressed Weerasinghe.

He asserted that the industry is in dire need for a leader, who would cater to all stakeholders and not selected segments.

“We need someone to unite all of us, to look after all of us and look at the problems, the day-to-day issues. It’s not the time to create issues, divide the industry and bring more control.

Needed is a leader with no agenda, who is willing to listen to all stakeholders across all levels, who is approachable and who is honest upfront.

If this continues, we will manage to capture some business but nothing will go on a massive scale,” cautioned Weerasinghe.

Way forward Weerasinghe reiterated that working together is imperative to increase the number of high-spending tourists arriving into the country. While in the immediate future it is unlikely to see an increase in numbers, due to source markets and Sri Lanka itself being massively impacted by the pandemic, there is a possibility of reaching 2018 numbers by 2025.

However, doing so requires well-thought-out plans that will be rolled out as the pandemic eases.

“We have to work now, start now. Otherwise we won’t get ahead. Tourists plan their holidays well in advance and tour operators plan ahead as well to capture the market share.

We need to build trust and thus trust cannot come from online platforms. The way forward is providing assurance to tourists that they will be safe and well looked after during their visit. And this can be delivered only when all stakeholders step up to provide a safe and secure experience from the point of arrival till departure,” expressed Weerasinghe.

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