The importance of being unique

Thursday, 14 July 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We recently had marketing guru Phillip Kotler visit Sri Lanka. Addressing an audience of marketers and business leaders, he had declared that Sri Lanka should be an ‘ecotourism’ destination and should be known to the world as ‘Sri Lanka; So Lovely’.

On reading this in the media reports, from my abode in the wilderness, I was both impressed and amused. Whatever he may have meant and understood as ‘ecotourism,’ he was spot-on with the thought that our country as a tourist destination had a unique opportunity in the world of tourism, i.e. as a little green (haritha) lung on the face of this earth.

The call I received a little after the Daily FT was launched was to contribute a regular column on tourism. The timing was perfect, for we had come out of the dark days of conflict and paths were being paved for a new beginning on a platform of national reconciliation, sustainability, self-reliance and prudent use of our natural, cultural and human resources.

A policy was laid out through ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ and its focus on the wellbeing of all Sri Lankans, a ‘Haritha Sri Lankawak (Green Sri Lanka)’ and equitable regional development was extremely impressive.

New hope

It was obvious that there were many setbacks that needed to be overcome. The law and order situation was in complete disarray. Respect for the Rule of Law was at a low ebb.

Most were rushing to make the most of the new-found opportunities, some in dignified and acceptable ways, while others were using might and power to meet their desires. The challenges before the leadership that had successfully crushed a terrorist outfit that created mayhem for nearly 30 years were many.

My self-imposed vision for the column was to present as many ‘out of the box’ thoughts as possible on how we could get our tourism right. I always did and will maintain that tourism is never a standalone activity that can strive in a cocoon. It has to reflect and represent the directions, ethos and values the destination nation takes on.

I was happy to see a leadership that cared for involving the community at large in tourism, expressing that as a policy objective, instead of making it an elitist activity led by a handful of investors. Taking a holistic view, I saw new hope at the time for a tourism that would have a new face and form.

Believable change

On the global front, the world at large was also recovering from a recession and a crisis even worse than the Great Depression that began in 1929 and a dent has been made in the faith we have had in the dominant system and model of economics and business.

In the US and in Europe, the bastions where the model saw its birth and where it thrived, calls were ripe for less of the invisible hand of market forces and for more regulation, government intervention and for adopting sustainable development options.

In the US, a new President had promised ‘change we can believe in,’ giving much hope to an already disillusioned public that was craving to see a warless, conflict-free and peaceful socio-political environment around us.

Although the pessimists ruled that possibility out, it was in my mind a very healthy process that was hoped for, as it would stand in good stead for us when we take on the many challenges we have to face in maintaining the good health of our planet earth and in questioning the dominant and wasteful practices we have set in place within it.

System of values

The basis of the dominant economic and business model we have inherited from the Western hemisphere has its roots in a laissez-faire (none or little interference from government ) type market model, where the price-mechanism is supposed to command its efficient functioning.

Its system of values is dependent on feeding on the greed of people (called effective demand and consumerism), free enterprise, competitiveness, individualism, choice and material success.

There are more recent gimmicky instruments that were made appendages to the model such as sustainability indices, good governance barometers, carbon-offset schemes, bio-diversity audits and corporate social responsibility reach-outs.

These, I propose, have been attempts to fix what has been intrinsically and endemically faulty about the model of business and its culture as we have known it for several decades.

China and India are pursuing a new brand of rapid growth, while creating a tightrope-walk type balancing act of a mix between free enterprise and state-led socialism, the success or failure of which will be seen with time.

It is a similar attempt in form, to the concept of ‘welfarism’ and ‘welfare economics’; a response we saw emerging in the post-industrial revolution era to contain a threat to the then predominant capitalistic system that emerged from the Marxist doctrine of communism, that later took the shape of socialism.

Need or greed

Beginning from the Greek city state, through to the post-industrial revolution times, we have been exposed to this model of economic activity and business with the thoughts of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, George J. Stigler, Milton Freedman and the schools of their followers.

Works such as the ‘Artha Sasthra’ by Kautilya reportedly of the 4th Century B.C. are quoted to have also suggested that governance and economics must be somewhat separated in its operation. We have also seen attempts in the past to challenge the validity of the values and the basis of the model by the likes of Karl Marx and his likeminded colleagues.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, who has proposed a basic system of values for living and for business based on the shunning of greed and not on feeding it further with the idea of offering more and more choice, defying the calls for meeting essential needs.

The systems are defined by the values and models of business established as a sine-qua-non (without which it cannot be). All our educational curricular and courses are designed within this framework. Our institutes, teachers and theirs before them, have all been moulded in the same model.

To think of it any other way may mean that we will not be a ‘success’. The model finds ways to protect its validity and sustenance, by defining its modalities through custom-designed courses, software packages and making the learners mere technicians, leaving little or no room for them to think of alternative ways to carry out business or run the affairs of the economy.

It is a truism that no business activity can thrive without being firmly rooted in the social, economic and cultural fabric of the environment in which it does business. What is faulty is that we are made to believe that the status quo of the current values and the models that form the fabric of our environment will need to be taken for granted (ceteris paribus).

What perhaps is permissible is only some tinkering type readjustment to ensure that the model continues to serve us. Those who sought to question the validity of the model and called for clarity were often labelled reactionaries, ‘doomsday soothsayers’ or alarmists who are anti-development and were sidelined.

Breakaway thinking

Do we have the answers we seek for what ails us within the known paradigms of the dominant Western business models? Do we need to have a more back to basics approach in seeking solutions?

Given that no amount of infusion of funds can bail out the world we live in, if we surpass the critical threshold levels of emitting CO2, causing global warming and sea level rises, do we have the resolve to reverse our excessively greedy ways?

Are we ready to look beyond the short-term to the mid and the long-term in business decision making? Should we look elsewhere for solutions or take a closer look in the mirror?

Should we not re-examine the models we have created or should we tag along hoping that we will be offered solutions? Should we be guided further by greed driven Western dominant business models or seek our own, designed after principles of prudent self-reliance, such as proposed by the Buddha and later articulated by Mahatma Gandhi and the King of Thailand (sufficiency economy).

Should we continue to consider conventional wisdom as idealistic and ignore the very core-values that sustained us for so long?

While the Asian way to economic and business management will define a new paradigm and model, we need to be mindful that it cannot be an appendage to the existing dominant model.

The reason for that is the basic difference in the core value in which the two models are built. One proposes that business must thrive on meeting human greed, while the other on shunning greed and building systems based on the collective good in meeting needs.

As was pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi, “Earth has enough to meet everyone’s needs, but not their greed.”

It is perhaps time for policymakers, strategists and professionals to begin to think ‘out of the box,’ shunning being slaves to dominant beliefs, beginning inventing fresh models for economies, for business, creating new paradigms, new tools and more sustainable ways of living. For we have little choice today and cannot continue to go on propagating the very same models that led us to failure.

Being the wonder

In tourism, we hear more talk on the numbers of tourist arrivals and the volume of investment funds generated than on the quality and substance behind those numbers and volumes.

We hear of attempts at amending legislations and regulations in place for the protection of our fauna and flora to allow for tourism operations around our national parks and protected areas.

We hear of attempts to dislodge wildlife from their habitats to construct large built environments that can be classified to be far remote from the ‘need’ based agenda that we spoke of earlier. A green destination such as Sri Lanka does not need built-up frills to make show business type offers.

Ours is a destination full of treasure troves for show business in its wilderness areas, wildlife options, under and on water marvels, diverse climatic zones and biological wonders, cultural events and festivals taking place in every village and vibrant and rich rural lifestyles.

It is for us to protect them with all our effort and share them with dignity and pride with the rest of the world. That is what will make Sri Lanka a unique destination. In a world where every other destination nation has much of the built-up show biz stuff, it is this unique offer that will make us stand tall in the crowd, making us be the wonder we desire to be.

(Some thoughts herein were presented in an earlier article the author wrote on sustainable development in the Lanka Monthly Digest.)

(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 renton@wow.lk.)

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