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Tackling tourism


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Last week the world celebrated UNWTO World Tourism Day under the theme ‘Sustainable Tourism: A Tool for Development’. Recognising the importance of this year’s theme, Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said with Sri Lanka recently becoming a Vice President of the UNWTO, it was now obligated to lead the way in this regard.

While countries and regions with tourism-driven economies have become increasingly concerned with the environmental as well as socio-cultural problems associated with ad-hoc tourism, Amaratunga pointed out that there was now agreement on the need to promote sustainable tourism development to minimise the environmental impact and maximise socioeconomic benefits.

Taking all this into consideration, the Minister said they were now preparing to launch Tourism Vision 2025 and Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020, the primary areas of which would focus on “world-class management of natural and cultural heritage sites,” strong connectivity to and around the island, ensuring a safe and secure destination and promoting community participation, while protecting and conserving our natural resources.

While the initiative is a noble one, and long overdue, it remains to be seen if the Government has the right foundation in place to ensure its success. It’s also a story many keen observers have heard one too many times.

When compared to its neighbours Sri Lanka boasts a most enviable variety in sights and attraction. 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 put in.

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.

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 – has 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 their goal of sustainability, the Government needs to conduct much more thorough and hands-on engagement when it comes to educating the public at 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.

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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