By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
As Sri Lanka is on a journey towards rapid progress and development, an eminent and respected business leader suggests that the country should look more deeply at the tourism sector and focus more on how best it can be promoted while ensuring that its visitors get an experience that is value for money.
Veteran banker and Osara Lanka Destinations Chairman Rienzie T. Wijetilleke during an interview with the Daily FT said that the tourism sector is a key area, which if properly focused upon, can be developed to contribute more towards the country’s much needed foreign resources.
After a 50 year stint in the financial sector, Wijetilleke expressed that he has committed himself to spend the remaining period of his professional life to promote an “urgent national task”.
Speaking on his quest to find new avenues for Sri Lanka’s tourism sector with emphasis on the country’s diverse natural wonders, its awe-inspiring history and its rich culture, Wijetilleke opined: “The Government should be less dependent on domestic workers going abroad to increase foreign exchange earnings and should instead divert its attention to the tourism sector to narrow the current account deficit.”
Referring to the execution of housemaid Rizana Nafeek which took place earlier this year, Wijetilleke stated that Sri Lanka cannot do without domestic workers going abroad but the country is also not strong enough to protect these workers either since it is dependent on the goodwill of countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“Quite understandably, Sri Lanka is now fully dependent on inward remittances sent by thousands of housemaids and unskilled workers employed in the Middle East. As seen and heard in the recent past, this situation has created serious social problems. My view is that with proper planning for foreign earnings through the tourism sector, the dependency on migrant remittances can be brought down,” he said.
Stating that serious action should be taken in the near future to stop this social problem, he pointed out that well planned solutions for such issues cannot be sought overnight.
Acknowledging that Sri Lanka has what it takes to be one of the top tourist destinations in the world, Wijetilleke pointed that the country can certainly flaunt its natural and cultural resources which very few countries in the world can boast of.
“Most of our sites are not spoken of and highlighted as much as it should be. We have so many heritage sites but we are not doing enough to display these valuable assets. When you look at other countries, they are doing so much for their visitors to enjoy the rich heritage of their country. It’s sad that in Sri Lanka, we are not giving our tourists an experience that is worth their money,” Wijetilleke noted.
Taking heritage sites such as Ruwanwelisaya, Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa and Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture as a few examples that, according to him, are not valued as much as it should be, Wijetilleke stated that tourism and investments in that area are not done in a structural manner.
“People are shouting for investments in this country. We do see notable efforts being put in by the Government for it, but we need to look for these investors in categories and sell our products to them accordingly,” he asserted.
Speaking on unique experiences that the country can offer to its visitors, Wijetilleke noted that Sri Lanka is a country that can give one the feel of all four seasons in one day.
“When it is bright and sunny in Trincomalee, it’s chilly in Nuwara Eliya. Being a small country where getting about is not too difficult, this is one good way of marketing the island. In one day, we can take our visitors to different areas of Sri Lanka to experience spring, summer, autumn and winter,” he said.
Speaking about the ease of getting about the country, Wijetilleke opined that the transport system in Sri Lanka needs further development.
Acknowledging that convenience is what most travellers look for, he stressed: “Our infrastructure is coming around beautifully no doubt, but we need good roads, train services and short internal domestic flights.”
Touching on the high unemployment rates amongst fresh graduates, Wijetilleke said that the tourism sector, if strategically planned, can help bring these rates down.
When questioned as to how this could be done, Wijetilleke said that rather than pushing a majority of these young graduates into teaching, if trained well, they could help uplift the standard of tourism in the country.
“The Ministry of Tourism could invest in helping these students gain a deeper knowledge of our heritage sites and recognise them as professional tour guides. They should try to make this look attractive so that they will be encouraged to confidently step into this area for employment. Since these young people are educated, they will get about this in a professional manner and add value to the experience of tourists,” he stated.
Wijetilleke added that Sri Lanka should put in place a short term plan to train the nation’s village youth to learn foreign languages such as English, Japanese, French and German.
Furthermore, he said: “We are promoting Sri Lanka as a top tourist destination, but we have plenty to do to justify this. We have yet to incorporate convenience and value into the pleasurable experience of our visitors. I am confident that with the strategic exercise that I have mentioned, our foreign exchange earnings through tourism can be increased while giving thousands of youth, both men and women who migrate overseas, an opportunity to serve our county within our shores.”