My first ever travel out of Sri Lanka was in 1973. I remember that experience vividly and enjoy its recall with much joy.
As a cub university teacher seeking post-graduate studies on a scholarship, I was then heading to the USA, I had to get a visa and that was no issue at all.
My credentials were in order and no one looked at me with the suspicion that I would not return to my country, would seek political asylum or cry of discrimination in my motherland to get residence status in America.
On my way, I stopped by in Hong Kong to catch my connection. At the time administered by the British, the reception at the Hong Kong airport’s immigration was excellent.
No issues at all; visa stamp chopped a welcome smile and off I went. I completed my sojourn in the USA and returned in 1976 via Japan, where a holiday was spent. Once again, kindness and caring at its best it was, with an excellent reception for us, as Sri Lankans.
Many visits thereafter to several other countries for conferences, meetings and other events on my chosen professions, coast conservation and later tourism, it was the same warm cordiality. The Sri Lankan passport was accepted and we as Sri Lankans were welcome everywhere.
We had a reputation as an emerging nation with a literate and a well-educated population thanks to the system of free education we had in place since the 1930s. We had several eminent Sri Lankans in leadership positions in most world bodies, some breaking new ground, setting new vistas. We were touted to be the next socio-economic miracle of Asia, a regional conference venue and promoted as the pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Then, in the 1980s we began to witness the slide down. Many policy follies and wrong turns taken in the body polity in Sri Lanka since the 1950s began to manifest and unfold in several different forms.
A misguided nationalism, weak economic fundamentals, youth uprisings, communal disharmony and systems of bad governance all culminated to bring out the worst in us as a nation, with the unfortunate and dastardly incidents we now dub ‘Black July’. A terrorist movement raised its head taking credence behind the fact that there was then an acclaimed racial divide.
Nearly 30 years later and loss of many innocent lives on a conflict that hurt Sri Lanka deep down to the core of its social, economic and cultural existence, it finally ended, with a definitive strike and the annihilation of the leadership of the terrorist forces.
With that behind us a huge responsibility now falls on those who represent us in governance, as well as all of us, to ensure that we do not fall back into that rut again. The efforts of all right thinking Sri Lankans should now be directed to rebuild a Sri Lanka where there is unity, equality in access to opportunities and fair-play for all her citizens regardless of race, class or creed.
A Sri Lanka where all her citizens can celebrate their diverse cultures in harmony with love and affection of each other, replacing feelings of mistrust, hatred and disharmony, which became the sad reality that broke our nation’s conscience.
As a fellow columnist in this journal recently wrote, as Sri Lankans we now need to have confidence that we can make it happen. He wrote that we must begin to believe in ourselves and our ability to shine in the world at large.
We need to recognise that amidst all the chaos and weak links we have in our structures of governance and the many misdemeanours we witness, there is also huge unexplored potential.
That potential includes not only innovating and developing new ventures, but also establishing a new ethos for managing them. Fair-play, equal opportunity, shunning corrupt practises without aiding and abetting mal-practise and bribery, transparency, accountability to the society at large, must all be part of that ethos.
We also must realise and believe that we as citizens and leaders of business have what it takes, to unleash that potential on behalf of our Motherland.
No matter what sector of the economy we operate in or what racial, religious or political beliefs we hold, it is our responsibility to believe in ourselves and lend our hearts and minds to build that otherwise elusive unity and harmony to see that Sri Lanka becomes a true ‘Wonder of Asia’.
The reality is that as a defined land mass, our country is indeed a ‘land like no other’. Within a little space of 25,000 square kilo-meters, this island of ours is blessed with a diverse natural, cultural and human resource base, unmatched by any other of its size.
The reality is also that much of it was lost to us as a nation, for much of our actions as demonstrated in our recent history did not justify our inheritance of riches bestowed on us by Mother Nature and those that lived before us.
While we are blessed with the resources, a heritage, cultural diversity and a pool of talented people, what we now need is the resolve to believe in ourselves that we can regain and re-establish what we had lost along the way, as a nation.
We need to redefine our own thinking of who we must be and what we can become. No matter what critics may say and other partisan elements may attempt, we need to begin to see our Motherland, Sri Lanka, as nothing less than being unique, precious and serendipitous.
Such cannot be presented in the world at large or within the world of tourism, as just another good or a service where the normal demand curve of ‘lesser the price, higher will be the demand’ principle.
A gem needs to be presented and marketed as a gem and the demand concept that defines how a gem is marketed is that of the ‘kinked demand’ principle. The anti-thesis of the normal demand principle, it is based on the premise of ‘higher the price, higher will be the demand’.
The recent decision of the Government to do away with visas on arrival and adopt a system of applying for visas online was received by the tourism sector as a certain deterrent for the future development of the industry in Sri Lanka.
In a situation where what we have is a level playfield of visa free travel around the world, this indeed will be a certain deterrent. That we know, is not so. In a world ridden with insecurity and uncertainty where threats of terrorism is real, the watchful eyes of all need to be focussed on preventive measures to ensure that there is room for better human understanding and peaceful coexistence, to take root.
In my mind, what we as citizens and business leaders in tourism could do to overcome the perceived deterrent will be to rethink and redefine the way we comprehend and market our offer in the tourism market place. Associated with the concepts of positioning and branding as we know them, we would do well to reposition and re-brand our nations offer on a fresh platform.
Task for all
The kinked demand principle may serve us well here, in shaping our thinking. This is no easy breakthrough or journey for any one sector. It needs to be the culmination of all sectors and players of our society and economy. The political and social leadership has a lot to offer those in business in giving credence to our ability to take on that challenge.
We as a nation can not only rely on our natural and cultural heritage and the inherent caring ways of our rural folk. We will together need to hone those further and ensure that we indeed become the ‘wonder,’ where good governance, equal access to opportunities and justice for all blend with the unique natural, cultural and heritage endowments we possess.
A hard but a doable task indeed, to make Sri Lanka most desirable as a nation seeking true unity within her diversity for all her citizens, while also becoming a much sought after destination for discerning traveller visitors.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)