Think tourism

Monday, 24 October 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

India has become the first country to express displeasure at the US$ 50 visa charge as part of the new electronic system to be introduced in January. Is the Government trying to do too much too soon?

The new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) replaces the free visa-on-arrival system and must be purchased online. Transit passengers must pay 25 pounds. Sri Lanka has defended the $ 50 charge, which operators and agents believe could deter British travellers already hit by Air Passenger Duty.

Even though Sri Lanka has said that it is “concerned,” the argument is that the system is for every market – and not every market is in the same situation as the UK. Authorities insist that it is still less than tourists pay for India or China. It is difficult from a UK perspective, but the idea is not to discriminate between countries.

The question is whether Sri Lanka has the same pull as China or India, which are both far larger markets. According to the latest statistics, Sri Lanka is the fastest growing travel destination in Asia. This is largely because it is a cheap and new destination, which is still little known that any traveller would be keen to sample. Yet the question arises, will they still pay extra money?

Sri Lanka’s tourist arrivals rose 27.2 per cent in September from a year earlier, continuing to rise every month on a year-on-year basis since May 2009. The Government is targeting annual revenue of $ 2.75 billion by 2016 from 2.5 million expected visitors attracted by Sri Lanka’s beaches, hills, religious and historic sites, while aiming for $ 3 billion in Foreign Direct Investment.

Visitors in September totalled 60,219. Tourist arrivals in the first nine months of 2011 jumped 34.3 per cent from the same period last year to 598,006. The island’s tourism industry drew $ 1.2 billion for investment in the first half of 2011.

The Government in July said it expected at least $ 1.5 billion in foreign investment into a proposed ‘tourist city,’ replete with hotels, shopping and a convention centre in Katana. Tourism revenue, which jumped 64.8 per cent in 2010 to a record $ 575.9 million, rose 49 per cent in the first eight months of this year from a year earlier to $ 521.7 million, Central Bank data shows. If the tourist numbers drop, Sri Lanka clearly stands to lose a lot.

The new system will help the destination monitor visitors to the country, which is certainly a positive point as it will help minimise the number of undesirable people including criminals entering the country. However, the website does not require passport copies or photographs, making tracking difficult. This website can be used for more than counting tourists – it can help protect Sri Lanka’s children, which is something that needs to be seriously considered by the authorities.

It is realistic to expect this new expense to cut arrivals since a family of four will have to pay US$ 200 extra, a significant amount of money, especially since the majority of tourists to Sri Lanka are still not high-paying ones.

It is clearly time that the tour operators and other industry stakeholders discuss the real impact of these charges and initiate a dialogue with the Government authorities so that the whole country can benefit.