The many faces of tourism

Thursday, 30 September 2010 13:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week my column was about my recent experience in walking through casinos in Macau (SAR), China, and of the concept of integrated resorts. I shared with readers how integrated resorts were used to contain hundreds of thousands of people in a world of dreams, within an artificially-created environment.

I had several readers sending me e-mails commenting on what they thought of the proposition I was making. Most said they never thought that one could contain such large numbers of visitors within buildings and wanted to study more of the concept. 

One caught my attention in particular, for that reader was upset with the thought that I was promoting casinos for Sri Lanka. I did respond to him firmly, stating that it was not my intent and thought it would be good for me to make a clarification today, lest I be misunderstood.

What I did not tell him though is that there is much hypocrisy in the way in which we think about gaming. Most of those who say that casinos are not to be, forget that most Sri Lankan families each evening sit together in front of their TV screens, to play the very many lottery games available. Within the City of Colombo, even in close proximity to schools, casinos carry on business as usual.

The proposition I make is that we contain all of that in a single area, to achieve the targets set for tourism while making rapid ROI, containing the need to ‘develop’ facilities all around the country, for the millions of visitors, we expect to have.

It is indeed a pragmatic plea for conserving our valuable biodiversity, rich natural and culturally vibrant heritage resources, for the longer term. What I learnt as a conservation economist is that the best way to conserve a resource under threat is through providing an alternative to replace it. 

On a recent visit to Polonnaruwa, we observed how the old bricks at several heritage sites were showing signs of wear and tear as a result of over-visitation to those particular areas. Some were even seen to be disintegrating. Each of our heritage sites as well as our cultural resources has a limit or a carrying capacity of what it can take, without causing irreparable damage to its form and content.

As I have maintained throughout my career in this industry, tourism is a two-edged sword. In the wrong hands and ill-managed, tourism can do much damage to a country’s natural, cultural and human resources.

Similarly, when well-managed, tourism can be a most potent and productive endeavour contributing to uplift the lives of communities, providing employment, incomes, education, enriching local cultures and contribute towards conservation of resources.

This year Sri Lanka expects to have nearly 700,000 visitors. In about half a decade, the number is to reach 2.5 million according to our tourism planners. A friend of mine exclaimed “but that’s half our population!” in response to a politician’s claim that tourism will need 10 million people to service its needs in the future.  And that would mean servicing many more millions of visitors than is now envisaged.

It is most unfortunate that many who talk about tourism or even get involved in its planning and management have not been exposed adequately to its manifold faces. They know only of a few popular models and continue attempts to replant some of them on our domain.

Within Sri Lanka, there are of course exceptions to this rule. One well known contributor is architect guru late Geoffrey Bawa. The innovative spirit, creativity and the local feel he brought to our hotel and resort architecture stands testimony to his lasting contribution to tourism. To him, a hotel was not just another well-designed building, but a platform to create a holistic visitor experience.

I have heard of an instance when he chased away a rock music band that was about to perform in the lobby of the Light House Hotel in Galle, for that was not to be the mood he had envisaged for his creation. Later, the amplified sounds were replaced with mellow melodies of a bamboo flute.

I also know of an enlightened tourism entrepreneur who, prior to designing a tourist hotel himself, took a tour studying best practices at destinations such as Bali, Chiang Mai, Sarawak and the like. He spent weeks at each, learning of the why and the how of those experiences and the facility he developed thereon is today a hit with high-end visitors as well as being an award winner.

Within tourism’s many faces we could also explore many options. Home-stay based resorts, boat-houses, soft and hard adventure, creating dream experiences, opportunities for volunteering, cultural interactions, mega-integrated resorts, eco-lodges, niche developments, tea-trails, ancient heritage explorations, colonial heritage explorations, wildlife explorations, study of elephants, ornithology explorations, sea mammal explorations, sailing and angling explorations… the list can be long and the faces are many. Yet, they must all be well-managed.

(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 based in Singaporefrom 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, Rentonlives away from Colomboin the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)