Tourism – the forex lifeline

Travel is very much in our genes. Millennia ago, humans ventured out of what is now East Africa to set foot on other continents. They later learned to cross vast oceans and in the process, populated all continents apart from Antarctica. That spirit of going in search of new places still lingers on in our genes – extending all the way to places beyond Planet Earth.

Today, the exploration of other countries and places on the planet is called tourism. It is obviously a big business, worth around US$ 1.3 billion annually globally. Sri Lanka was a global hot spot for tourism until fairly recently, with publications such as CNN Travel and Lonely Planet declaring Sri Lanka as the world’s top spot for travel. This gave a big boost for inbound tourism, with Sri Lanka earning around US$ 5 billion from tourism receipts in 2018, the last “normal” year for tourism in Sri Lanka.

This is because the Easter attacks happened in April 2019, drastically halting the flow of tourists to the country. However, the tourism industry was making a rapid recovery after the tragic events of Easter 2019. Then another crisis manifested itself in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic. The only consolation is that this time, we were not alone. The entire world has been affected by the contagion, with global tourism coming to a virtual standstill for close to two years. Sri Lanka too imposed a nationwide lockdown and closed its borders to international travelers.

Trends

With the gradual easing of the pandemic (now in its third year), Sri Lanka too has opened its borders to all vaccinated travelers, like most other countries. But in the aftermath of the recent political events and the acute shortage of fuel and lengthy power cuts, the tourism sector is again suffering. Yet, there is a trickle of tourists coming in despite all the challenges and we should make life easier for them.

All facilities should be provided to tourists who choose to come here, knowing the difficulties they might have to face. A proper mechanism should be evolved to provide an uninterrupted supply of fuel to all vehicles transporting tourists as the fuel limits imposed by the QR Code system may not be adequate to take tourists around the country, with some trips covering the entire island exceeding 1,000 Km.

It is also just as important to provide fuel for generators used by tourist hotels to cope with the power cuts, as the proposal to exempt tourist hotels from the power cuts may not always be practical. The hotels must also be encouraged to install solar power systems that will reduce their dependence on the national grid.

Suggestions

Since tourist hotels earn foreign exchange for the country, it would be prudent to grant them (and also “special tours” bus operators) duty free permits to import electric cars and buses for the transport of tourists on the condition that they also import DC superchargers or solar chargers. A duty concession can be granted for this as well.

Since it is also important to ensure an adequate supply of food for the tourists in the face of an impending food crisis, all hotels with arable land must be encouraged to grow crops that can sustain their kitchens. We can look at other countries which have introduced new concepts such as rooftop and vertical farming as well as hydroponics, the technique of growing crops without soil. Most hotels can easily embrace these concepts. Hotels should also have a more robust relationship with the local farmers and suppliers so that they nurture the local economy.

On the part of the authorities, they should ensure an adequate supply of Jet Fuel, basically a variety of Kerosene, to all airlines calling at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Colombo. Some airlines have stopped their services or reduced their frequencies to Colombo citing fuel, insurance and political instability issues. This has adversely affected the inflow of tourists and quick action must be taken to resolve these matters.

Moreover, air tickets to and from Sri Lanka have become very expensive in recent times, which may also deter tourists from coming here. This issue too has to be resolved to some extent, although there are other global factors too at play here. If these issues can be resolved, more airlines are waiting in the wings to begin services to Colombo and also to increase their frequencies. Moreover, the authorities should encourage more Indian airlines to use the new Palaly International Airport in Jaffna, given that Indian tourists top tourist arrivals here.

Sri Lanka is adventure

But those who know about this resplendent isle will visit it no matter what the circumstances are. As Sri Lankan-Australian Chef Peter Kuruwita wrote recently in the Australian travel magazine ‘Escape’ “visit Sri Lanka and you will be welcomed with warmth and love. Sri Lanka is an adventure, however you explore it and whenever you visit. When the time is right, tourists like you can speed up Sri Lanka’s recovery and help its people in a very real way. The Australian cricket team’s recent tour of Sri Lanka was a huge help to local morale. It was more than sport, it showed a kinship between peoples.”

Indeed, Sri Lankans are known the world over for their warmth, love and hospitality. Most tourists cite our friendly people as one of their main reasons for visiting Sri Lanka. But of late, there have been some incidents that may have harmed this reputation. Things have to start from the BIA itself, where touts often harass tourists for everything from taxi rides to hotel stays. In fact, touts, beggars, unlicensed tour guides and brokers harass tourists at all major tourist attractions, which could put off some of them from coming here again. After all, repeat tourists are a big market for us.

middle of the road” pricing policy

Sri Lankan tourism authorities also have to rethink the admissions pricing policy at key tourism attractions, where tourists sometimes have to pay as much as 10 times the rate paid by local tourists. This may adversely affect budget tourists, but in today’s context we need every dollar. It is better to have one “middle of the road” pricing policy for both foreigners and locals.

It is also vital to have more Tourist Police stations near key attractions and also in the major cities visited by tourists. This way, tourists can get help quickly if they are harassed, fleeced, intimidated or robbed.

All the personnel attached to Tourist Police must be encouraged to learn at least one more language in addition to English, such as French, German, Spanish and Russian. This will help them to communicate more easily with the tourists, some of whom cannot speak English all that well.

At least some of these stations could also be manned by a doctor and a nurse, given the resurgence of Covid in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. All tourists visiting Sri Lanka must be strictly advised to inform the nearest Government hospital if they develop any Covid or Flu-like symptoms. Their Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) has a built-in US$ 12 Insurance Cover for such contingencies, so there would be no extra burden per se on the local health system.

Follow health guidelines

In fact, all steps must be taken to avoid another Covid-19 wave and a lockdown in Sri Lanka, given that up to one million Sri Lankans are benefiting directly or indirectly from tourism related enterprises and activities, from waiters in hotels to souvenir sellers. Many of them lost their jobs due to the pandemic-related lockdowns but hotels have again stepped up recruitment as things are looking good again.

While the big hotel chains can somehow survive another lockdown of say, three months, one can imagine the fate of small-time tourism operators including small guest house/airbnb owners, drivers and guides and shop owners if that happens. Hence the need to avoid a lockdown again. For many of these individuals, tourism is their sole income avenue. One silver lining in this darkness is that most tourism jobs are now back in demand.

International tourism promotional campaign

There is also an acute need for an international tourism promotional campaign through traditional and social media globally to highlight our gains and achievements in facing the pandemic and of course, our multitude of religious, cultural and natural attractions that are perhaps not found anywhere else on the planet. This campaign should also reassure any “on the fence” tourists that Sri Lanka is a safe destination to visit, both security and health-wise.

This should also highlight that most, if not all, difficulties faced by travelers in Sri Lanka have now been resolved, with a stable Government in place after the recent political transition. Journalists from leading travel publications in our source markets as well as from new markets should be given familiarization tours here so that they will inform their readers and viewers on the array of attractions here. We can even encourage tourists to get their Covid booster shots here, as some countries indeed do.

Good opportunity

This “reset” will also be a good opportunity for travel and tourism planners to analyze shortcomings in the inbound travel industry and take corrective steps. That will help the industry to realize the initial goal of 2.5 million tourists per year at least after 2024-25, giving a new sense of purpose and direction to the tourism industry, perhaps the most vital cog in the economic wheel in terms of attracting foreign exchange.

We must bear in mind that global travel is yet to recover to 2019 levels, so Sri Lanka should be in a position to do much better in terms of tourism next year and in 2024, when global air travel is predicted to return to normal levels. Our tourism planners must get ready for this uptick in tourism from now on to reap the full benefits.

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