By Chandeepa Wettasinghe Sri Lanka could become one of the world’s most competitive tourism destinations within five years, if the government gets its promotions and regulations right, a leading tourism expert said yesterday at the Asia Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference currently taking place in Colombo. “We will see a huge difference. It could be in five years,” World Travel and Tourism Council Chairman Gerald Lawless said in response to a question on how long it would take for Sri Lanka to become a tourism destination like Dubai. Lawless was previously CEO of the Jumairah group, which among other luxury properties owns Burj al-Arab and is currently Head of Tourism and Hospitality at the government-owned Dubai Holding, which has large investments and subsidiaries in Dubai, including the Jumairah group. “You need to promote tourism,” he added, after noting that Sri Lanka has a great tourism product and that a lot of infrastructure projects are coming online in the island to facilitate the industry over the next few years. “Everything is ripe for tourism, there just needs to be right regulations,” Lawless further added. He said that once the political leaders become interested about the industry and create the right message for the locals that it creates great employment opportunities, the momentum of a well-regulated and sustainable tourism industry would be hard to stop. Lawless added that the growth of the middle class in India and China provides Sri Lanka with a big market right at its doorstep.
He advised Sri Lanka to highlight its people and culture, which tourists are now becoming more interested in, instead of the more traditional sun, sea and sand mass tourism. The recent budget seemed to be making moves towards increasing taxation on the informal tourism sector in the country, which allows tourists to experience local culture and people more closely through homestays and bed and breakfast units and injects income directly into the grass root levels without trickledown effects.
Lawless also noted that the Sri Lankan visa fees are high, considering that a US $ 35 fee is charged for 30 days per person, which may have an effect on repeat visits and large families hoping to visit the country. He also said that Sri Lanka should embrace open skies policies and greater infrastructure development to improve tourism into the country.