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POSTED AT 10:04 AM 25-03-2019

Diplomats delve into tourism industry

Image Courtesy: Daily Mirror

- UK calls for greater conservation, planning 
- EU suggests better connectivity, skills development, and building codes 
- Turkey highlights taxation, passport control, and need for public transport from BIA to Colombo 
- Netherlands cautions SL on competitiveness with regional markets 
- Malaysia commends plan to introduce liberal visa policy, brand building 
- Indonesia details efforts by their Govt. to increase awareness of tourism importance amongst locals

Drawing from their experiences, foreign diplomats from a range of countries last week recommended Sri Lanka focus on sustainable tourism, while improving on the areas of taxation, visa guidelines, skilled labour, air connectivity, public transportation, brand positioning, mindful construction and infrastructure development as key policies that the Government should focus on to develop tourism.

Last week’s Fireside Chat 2019 featured envoys from the United Kingdom, European Union, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Turkey, China, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Out of the 10 diplomats, six shared their frank views to improve the already thriving tourism industry on a wide range of topics as to what they think is the best way forward for Sri Lanka.

The first-of-its-kind event was organised by the Daily FT, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Sri Lanka, and CIMA at Hilton Colombo on 19 March.

British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris stressed that Sri Lanka should focus on sustainable tourism instead of sheer numbers. 

“Sri Lanka is truly blessed with its natural beauty and heritage. I hear about the number of tourists regularly, but I think Sri Lanka needs to think hard between the numbers of tourists and tourist revenue — these are quite different things. The tourism policy going forward should think carefully in this regard about how to get this balanced, especially given the need to look after the natural environment, which makes this country so special,” he added.

Pointing out that the tourism sector has already seen substantial growth, European Union Delegation Deputy Head of Mission Thorsten Bargfrede said the potential for Sri Lanka was still very high compared to other countries in the region, while insisting that there is also a lot of room to improve in terms of road connectivity, construction and training of skilled labour.

“Planning is an important area. As tourism grows, there is a tendency to have unpleasant construction coming up everywhere, so we need to plan not to ruin the beauty of the island. A lot can go wrong if it is unplanned for quick money and you can end up with ugly buildings,” he said. 

Noting that unplanned buildings are not yet happening, Bargfrede emphasised the need to be cautious. “Have special zones, be clear on what type of tourists you want to cater to,” he added.

He also said that improving skilled labour was critical for the growth of the tourism industry. “Training a waiter is as important as training a general manager of a hotel; so both service skills and management skills need to be improved. We need special training and systems that are aligned with the industry and work closely with businesses. Don’t forget vocational training sectors. You not only need top engineers, but you need electricians and plumbers, and so, skills need to go bottom-up,” Bargfrede stressed.

Netherlands Ambassador to Sri Lanka Joanne Doornewaard noted that there seems to be too many taxes in Sri Lanka. 

“Sri Lanka is quite expensive. Tourists compare. Sri Lanka is expensive in comparison to countries like Thailand. A week in Sri Lanka would be priced as much as two to three weeks in Thailand. So, tourists may think twice about why they need to come here,” she pointed out.

Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka Tunca Özçuhadar emphasised that transit times between locations need to be shortened and public transport needs to be significantly improved. “Sri Lanka is positioned at a great location, which can be reached within three to four hours by 60% of the world’s population. To tap this huge potential, Sri Lanka needs to have practical and affordable flights, but the current flights are not enough. When someone lands at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), the connectivity facilities to the capital need to be improved significantly, including road networks. If you want to go to Mt. Lavinia Hotel from the airport, it takes one hour and 40 minutes to drive just 43 kilometres; this is ridiculous after a 10-hour flight from Europe,” he said. 

He also asserted that there was no public transport from airport to downtown and people have to carry the luggage by themselves, which needs significant improvement. In addition, he noted that taxation and passport control need the immediate attention of the authorities. 

“Last year, we had 40 million visitors to Turkey and generated $30 billion, which we reinvested in vocational training and infrastructure. We have also divested our tourism offering not by just focusing on land and sea. Sri Lanka too needs to invest on improving infrastructure and look at other lucrative tourism offerings like sports and adventure tourism for example, moving away from the conventional methods,” Özçuhadar added.

Malaysian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Tan Yang Thai noted that adopting a liberal visa policy and a brand identity helped them develop their tourism industry to great heights. 

“You recently launched your ‘So Sri Lanka’ campaign. This is very important so people can relate to Sri Lanka. We had ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ for more than 25 years and we never changed it. That is brand building and Sri Lanka is doing that. We had a very liberal visa policy and opened up to most companies. Sri Lanka is also heading in the same direction,” he said.

Indonesian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Gusti Ngurah Ardiyasa stressed that improving connectivity, liberal visa policies and creating awareness amongst local communities has worked well in improving their tourism sector. 

“Like Sri Lanka, Bali is also blessed with natural beauty and strong culture. Connectivity is very important for us and we also work a lot with local people to make them understand the importance of the tourism industry. Indonesia has also developed 10 destinations beyond Bali and has new places to explore,” he added. 

Ardiyasa also said Indonesia has given 30 days free visa access to 169 countries, including Sri Lanka.

Charumini de Silva