Tourism déjà vu

Tuesday, 1 September 2020 00:57 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This week the Government announced that it has allocated nearly Rs. 168 million to develop tourist attractions in several parts of the country over the next four months. The move is a welcome one, and whether by design or simply coincidence, it’s also well timed.

With COVID-19 not going away anytime soon, the next four months, much like the preceding four, are likely to see very little, if any, tourism into the country; this is something that will probably be the case even if the Katunayake airport is reopened before the end of the year. As such, it’s the ideal time to work on developing tourist attractions, giving nature time to breathe away from the business of accommodating actual tourists. Twelve tourist attractions have been identified as part of the development proposals, with railway stations to be modernised and special attention to be paid to communities-driven tourism.

This last point, which will hopefully be elaborated upon in the coming weeks and months, is particularly crucial. Development that aligns with community interests is surely the most holistic way forward, though the extent to which this is done is the difference between short-term gain and long-term sustainable prosperity. And it’s a path Sri Lanka has failed to successfully traverse in the past.

More than a decade since the end of the war, which heralded the tourism boom, Sri Lanka has enjoyed generous revenue increases but has failed to ensure that tourists get the care, security, facilities, fairness and transparency that would make it product competitive, one that holds up to global standards.  

The post-war boom had attracted many who simply wanted to make money from tourism and were not concerned enough about the sustainability of the industry. There were also promotional campaigns that lacked sufficient transparency and didn’t always hit the mark.

Furthermore, the protection of the country’s 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 off-shore 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 – have sadly taken a backseat. Meanwhile a lack of awareness and education among area residents means pollution is a continuing concern. There have been reports that important areas such as Piduruthalagala may be cleared to give land to squatters – such social issues need better solutions.

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. 

In this sense it’s promising to see that among the latest set of initiatives, websites targeted at foreign tourists are to be designed, while Rs. 29 million has been put aside to train youth interested in the tourism industry.

The sincere hope now is that, unlike in the past, these moves are well-thought-out, with a coordinated plan put into motion to ensure that locals are educated on the importance of tourism, as well as environmental sustainability, to Sri Lanka’s economy, and that work is done simultaneously to improve security and service standards across the board.