By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
The Sri Lankan government has finally admitted that its recent tourism activities, conducted by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau (SLTPB) officials with limited competence, capability and experience, have given little in return for the country.
“The SLTPB is faced with challenges in implementing and executing due to capability, competence and experience limitations of staff,” the Tourism Development and Christian Affairs Ministry’s Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020 (TSP) published this month noted.
It added that its planning activities have not been professional, quality-driven or technologically savvy.
This appears to be a refreshing change from the usual statements from other ministries that their departments have highly competent and capable staff but have lacked proper leadership in the past.
SLTPB Chairman Udaya Nanayakkara, who was appointed this June, went on a massive recruitment drive last month. Whether his new recruits are qualified, capable and experienced and whether the old guard has been wheeled off to irrelevance remains to be seen.
Critics have pointed out that individuals with political influence apply for jobs in the tourism authorities—in addition to the more obvious positions in departments like the Customs—in order to benefit from regular foreign travel and lavish spending sponsored by the taxpayer, which more than make up for low base salaries.The trend is prevalent from the top to bottom of the organisations. One SLTPB Managing Director appointee last year, Ruvini Dias Bandaranayake, allegedly recommended by Petroleum Resource Development Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, resigned after she had failed to provide evidence of her educational qualifications.
The new Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority Chairman Kavan Ratnayake—a private sector professional—is the brother of Law and Order and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayake.
The tourism authorities have possibly spent billions of rupees in recent years to send its bureaucrats and various politicians to participate in trade shows.
The then SLTPB Acting Chairman Paddy Withana had last year said that the government had spent Rs.3 billion in promotions in 2015 and Rs.4 billion was budgeted for 2016. A Right to Information request submitted this May by Mirror Business to ascertain the exact spending on trade shows has not received a reply.
Although the bureaucrats had emphasized on the effectiveness of participating in trade shows and claimed the existence of research, which proves such effectiveness until recently, the new bible for tourism deviates from this view.
“The SLTPB focuses on limited low-return marketing activities, namely conventional methodologies such as trade shows, consumer shows and above-the-line advertising,” the TSP said.
Despite admitting that Sri Lanka’s tourism arrivals have been influenced by social media in recent years, Tourism Development and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga as recently as this May defended the continued spending of public resources on trade shows.
According to a trade show participant, who commented anonymously, the low returns from trade shows in the past had been due to key public and private sector decision makers refusing to take risks and be creative, in fear of foreigners categorizing Sri Lanka as an unsophisticated country—based on a narrow definition of sophistication.
The TSP noted that the SLTPB marketing and communications activities have not been trend conscious and dynamic in response to market requirements.
The SLTPB has been planning a Rs.500 million digital media campaign and a Rs.3 billion long-term campaign, which has been delayed due to bureaucratic processes. Systematic promotional efforts have been delayed for years due to political meddling, which also resulted in tourism authorities losing professional bureaucrats.
The TSP emphasizes on an overarching marketing effort for Sri Lanka, based on research, as well as internal and external competencies.