This past week has seen yet another shake-up in the tourism sector, with popular artiste Iraj Weeraratne made a Director of the Board of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB).
While many on social media have scoffed at the idea, the move arguably has its merits. Most notably in adding a fresh perspective when formulating ideas to promote Sri Lanka to as wide a range of demographics as possible.
However, for those entrusted with boosting Sri Lanka’s tourism prospects, such eye-catching appointments should not overshadow the hard yards that still need to be run.
Sri Lanka’s much vaunted vision for 2025 under previous Tourism Minister John Amaratunga had placed a keen focus on the “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 simultaneously protecting and conserving our natural resources.
The fact is there is now widespread agreement on the need to promote sustainable tourism development to minimise environmental impact and maximise socioeconomic benefits. And this is something all stakeholders need to be cognisant of, though it remains to be seen if the Government has the right foundation in place to ensure its success. When compared to its neighbours, Sri Lanka boasts a most enviable variety of sights and attractions. Wildlife safaris, exotic marine life, beautiful 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 offshore 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 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.
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.