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Tourism can fast track socioeconomic recovery

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nFollowing is the address delivered by President of ASMET Suresh de Mel at the sixth Annual General Meeting of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises in Tourism (ASMET) Sri Lanka, held on 25 October 2012 at the Monara Restaurant of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management

Ayubowan, I welcome you all to the Ceremonial Session of ASMET’s sixth Annual General Meeting. It is indeed an honour for me to address you this afternoon.

Tourism is an industry with vast potential to fast track socioeconomic recovery in Sri Lanka. However, such recovery is only possible if the dividends are distributed equitably among all stakeholders, especially the host communities.

Empowering the SME sector in tourism is extremely crucial in this context. The Small and Medium Enterprises in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry are mostly rural and community based. They are by and large a vast informal sector. They lack the many skills and linkages that are necessary to derive the true benefits from a highly-competitive industry like tourism.

However, they will prevail, and provide services to the tourists. These services, most often, do not meet the standards of responsible tourism. In fact, some of them would be socially unacceptable, damaging to the environment, unhygienic, unsafe, unethical, illegal, and detrimental to the image of Sri Lanka’s tourism at large.

ASMET members operate intimately with the informal sector. Therefore, ASMET members have the best opportunity to inspire and empower this segment of our community, to regularise and formalise them, and to ensure good practices among them. However, the first priority for us would be to strengthen our own association, and to empower the formal SME – the members of ASMET, some of whom are also lagging behind in capacity to provide good services.

Strengthening ASMET’s institutional capacity

Strengthening ASMET’s institutional capacity is our number one priority. We must have capacity to organise the sector, provide tangible services to our members, and be able to support a deep and wide membership.

In order to do this, SMEs must be recognised for what they are. Platforms must be created for dialogue and strong bonds, trust and linkages with the Government and the larger private sector must be established. We must develop an attitude and culture of inclusivity in the true form of the word. And, most importantly, we must be able to attract the necessary resources for institutional capacity building.

We know that tourism is a thrust sector for Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic recovery. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has in no uncertain terms spelled out the need for SME development and regional empowerment thru his ambitious manifesto, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana – Idiri Dekma’. Therefore, I appeal to all stakeholders to unite and support ASMET to strengthen its institutional capacity. Thereby ASMET will be able to help fast track the development of the SME sector in tourism and ensure an equitable, sustainable, and responsible tourist industry in Sri Lanka.

ASMET has grown slowly but surely to make its mark in support of the development of Sri Lanka Tourism in general and the SME sector in particular, in Sri Lanka. As individuals, SMEs are too small to be taken seriously. However, even when collectively grouped into industry associations, they have failed to become a formidable force.

This is partly the fault of the SMEs themselves who have done little to build a strong and professionally argued case for sustained help. They have failed to collectively highlight their contribution to economic growth, and beyond to society, culture, heritage, and environment, as well as poverty alleviation, and the rich-poor income gap. Although SMEs in tourism can proudly claim to be a positive contributor to all these factors, it has not positioned and marketed itself accordingly.

Changing world order

The world order is changing like never before, across every industry sector.

1. Free trade will be replaced by free and fair trade

2. Big is beautiful will be replaced by small is beautiful

We need to develop a policy platform that stresses on the SMEs, and moves away from the ‘big is beautiful’ scenario. It’s time to become proud of being small – small companies, small institutions and small countries.

Young people need to be made to feel proud of working for small companies. The small companies themselves must provide exemplary standards of working conditions and service levels.

Tourism policymakers have to recognise that the new world order must be more balanced. Solutions must focus on coming up with new innovative ideas and recommendations that do not repeat past mistakes, but learn from them in order to come up with an entirely new sense of direction that is more sustainable and long-term.

Great step forward

The recently-formed Joint Committee on Tourism is a great step forward for Sri Lanka. I must thank SLAITO, THASL and the Government who initiated this concept, and for recognising ASMET as a key member of this Committee.

ASMET hopes to organise a series of data-gathering conferences, specifically on the needs of the SMEs in tourism. No such conferences have ever been held in Sri Lanka. They can become a first-level platform for more detailed data-gathering and brainstorming, which can then be formulated into a policy roadmap.

Thanks to the great voluntary contribution by our Past Presidents and the Executive Committees, ASMET has come this far. However, we have a long way to go. We must be a ‘bottom up’ organisation, and proactive engagement and support of our membership is most vital at this time.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the Ministry of Economic Development, the Minister and the Secretary, the NCED, the SLTDA, the SLTPB, the SLITHM, SLAITO, THASL, other industry partners, and our members and well-wishers for the support extended to ASMET over the past year. We look forward to working closely with you in the future.

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