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A second chance for tourism? 


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Since the Easter Sunday attacks, reams of space have been given as to how Sri Lanka's tourism industry can be helped through this rough patch and restored to the golden heights it occupied before 21 April.  

Despite the tourism industry's success, few would say that it was perfect. 

Even before the attacks, there were plenty of complaints that Sri Lanka is a less safe place for women travellers, certain hotels refusing to serve local customers, irregular construction, the menace of touts even at the airport, lack of quality customer service, unjustifiable high prices at some attractions and issues over the money not being used to conserve wildlife and other heritage attractions. Of all the many issues perhaps the last was the most telling with overcrowding at places such as Yala being a serious problem.  

The post-war boom had attracted many who simply wanted to make money from tourism and were not concerned enough about the sustainability of the industry. There were also promotional campaigns that lacked sufficient transparency and didn't always hit the mark. The ‘So Sri Lanka’ campaign had mixed success at best and failed to really impress anyone in terms of its sheer branding prowess. 

When compared to its neighbours, Sri Lanka boasts a most enviable variety in sights and attractions. Wildlife safaris, exotic marine life, beautiful sandy beaches, cosy cold climate escapes, deep sea diving, ancient ruins and cities; you name it, and Sri Lanka will invariably be able to offer it. Yet Sri Lanka’s self-promotion abroad is borderline criminal when compared to the work that countries with far less to offer have put in and has rarely been consistent.

One of the key problems repeatedly highlighted by the industry is the lack of accurate data. For years, the Government has been releasing numbers that do not differentiate between the formal and informal sectors adequately enough to understand how many foreigners are tourists, where they stay, how much they spend, and their level of expectations. Without in-depth data, policymakers cannot understand the direction the industry should take, which affects the entire value chain. Policymakers have also had the luxury of being relatively laid back because despite shortcomings, arrival numbers have continued to grow without needing a lot of serious effort. 

Furthermore, the protection of its natural resources has been woefully inadequate. While the Government must be commended on recent declarations of several forest areas in the island as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, that is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Conservation work done on off-shore attractions such as shipwreck diving and the protection of Sri Lanka’s abundance of marine life – both of which are potential cash cows that are being tragically under-utilised – have sadly taken a backseat. Meanwhile a lack of awareness and education among area residents means pollution is a continuing concern.

If Sri Lanka is to stay true to its goal of sustainability, the Government needs to conduct much more thorough and hands-on engagement when it comes to educating the public at the grassroots level while at the same time pushing the Sri Lankan brand in a far more coordinated manner to maximise the country’s exposure abroad. There also has to be wide ranging programs to educate locals on the importance of tourism to Sri Lanka's economy and work to improve security and service standards across the board. 

The Easter Sunday attacks can be used as an opportunity to fix these and other shortcomings in the tourism industry. It’s a tough battle on multiple fronts, but one that Sri Lanka cannot avoid any longer if its grand tourism ambitions are to be realised.

 


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