The 2020 plan will reshape tourism industry: Minister

22 October 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
Mirror Business sat down with the new Tourism and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga to discuss the new tourism master plan which will take the industry forward till 2020. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

What are the pillars of the new tourism master plan?
There are couple of plans. One is the plan that was formulated and given to us to proceed with the new government. Then there’s an old master plan. So there are enough plans, but we have to implement these things. Plans are not enough. That’s why we’re getting the expert advice and moving ahead, because this industry has been neglected in the past and has been drifting without navigation. 

Now it’s time to move ahead. Of course, under the 100-day programme a minister was appointed, but he didn’t have much time. Now that I have been appointed as a permanent minister, we’re not rushing into everything, but studying the appropriate approach to develop tourism in this country.

This plan will be up to 2020. There are several objectives we have in mind; to increase the number of tourists coming into this country, aiming for this year 2 million, and aiming for next year another 2.5 million and trying to get into better markets. Also to see that 45,000 rooms are available for the increased number of tourists.

We’re also aiming that tourism will be the number one foreign exchange earner on one side, and on the other side, foreign direct investments, by inviting people to invest in hotels, leisure parks and other areas where people could come an enjoy their holidays.

This will be the policy; to make it an employment generating industry, and bring in the foreign exchange without destroying our culture.

What are the source markets we’re going to focus on?
In the past, we catered to the Western tourists, mainly from Europe, and some parts of Japan as well. But today, with Eastern Europe opening up, most people are flooding the Eastern countries, because they have so many nice places as much as we have. But we are now trying to target the high-end tourists in the Indian market. There are a lot of people in India who like to come to Sri Lanka particularly during summer, where temperature goes over 100 (Fahrenheit) and some of them die in those parts. So are the Middle East people and the Chinese market. 

But in the Chinese market, our propaganda is still inadequate. There are Chinese with a lot of money but know nothing about Sri Lanka. So, penetration into that market is also our ambition. An obstacle we have is the air transport system. We should have regular flights. We must also open up Mattala Airport for those who are going to the Eastern Province. 

And then we must have a domestic hub in a place like Hingurakgoda in order to have the domestic air transportation. People who come to Sri Lanka don’t want to spend hours on the road. They want to get to their destination as soon as possible. So now we see a lot of internal air transportation companies concentrating in coming in and providing this service.

What about backpackers and ‘flashpackers’ who spend a lot on experiences rather than on accommodation?
That we can’t stop. For one thing, they want to save money, and they want to have a variety. On the other hand, we have groups that come in and want to stay in 5 stars; the high-end. Different outlooks. We’ll allow it all. But when we’re targeting and promoting, we have to target the higher-end. The Maldives collared most of our tourists from Europe during the war.

What will be done about tourism arrival figure inaccuracies? The figures are including Sri Lankans holding foreign passports etc.

Yes, but we’re now categorizing. The Immigration Department is now careful. There are some Indians who come to buy goods and go. They won’t fall into the category of tourists. 

Now it depends on the nights of stay. The definition of a tourist was that even if it’s a one night stay, one is considered as a tourist. But we said no, there must be 2-3 nights a man must be staying here, either for business or leisure. We can’t be taken for a ride by the numbers, can we? It’s a joke. 

What will be done to address the human resource shortage in tourism?
We think that this is the golden opportunity to cushion our unemployment problem. 

In the past what happened was that these people went to the Middle East to do menial jobs and suffered a lot of hard work and pain. Here in tourism we will train and give a certificate, with which they can get a job in any part of the world or become a part and parcel of our industry here, because if the number of tourists and hotels are increasing, we require people for the services. 

So, there are crash programmes we have started all over the island, because if we have only one training school in Colombo, children far away will find it hard to come to Colombo. So we’re setting up in principal towns; opening up training centres, and we’re trying to increase the number of lecturers, because without sufficient people we can’t start, and also to increase their salaries.

We’re also starting to partner with the University of Colombo to make the certificate that we are giving to these trainees more valuable and acceptable across the world. For now, the Hotel School is involved in the matter. University people are also being consulted and that will come in due course. The important thing is to start up.

Today we had a discussion with the German Foundation, which wants to come here and train our children and the people already in service—to give them scholarships etc. Shangri La is ready to open up a hotel school in Hambantota. Then Aitken Spence—in their collaboration with their Spanish partner who is building a hotel in Ahungalle—want to start another training school on their own. So there is a lot of enthusiasm both locally and from foreigners. They like the destination, and they like our people. They feel like Sri Lankans can be trained, because of our basic education and the literacy rate.

In some places, there is a lot of harassment, threats and thefts by beach boys, making things uncomfortable. So now we have to embark on an education programme of the people like the beach boys that they must behave and not try to extort and create unpleasantness for the tourists.

The informal sector is said to be causing problems to formal establishments, degrading Sri Lankan hospitality and not paying taxes or employee benefits. Will they be brought under regulations?
We’re trying to bring the informal sector—the restaurants and hotels—quietly under the umbrella of the Tourism Ministry by recognizing them and giving them a status, and they will be registered under the Tourist Board.

Yesterday, we went and opened an informal sector restaurant and gave them a certification. This is to bring them under surveillance. In the Health Ministry and the Tourism Ministry, there are certain minimum conditions we have put. If they adhere to that, we will give them a special badge and a logo saying that they have been certified by the Tourist Board. In Colombo and going down south, a number of places will have that certification. 

These people were going free-of-charge, but if they want a liquor license, there are some basic requirements they need to have.

But what I’m saying is that we should have, like other countries, free sale of wine and beer. This is ridiculous, because even without a license they sell it, then bribe the Police and the Excise Department and get away. The government doesn’t get a cent. They must pay the annual license fee. Tourists are also being taken for the ride and you can’t do tourism. In other countries, over the counter you can buy any bottle from any shop or have a glass of wine in any outlet. 

What are some of the environmental issues currently under the spotlight related to tourism?
It is important that our resources be safeguarded, regulated and facilitated. For example, I was in Hikkaduwa this week, and there were huge complaints from the hoteliers that the corals are being damaged and the beach is being usurped by the boat people. There are no piers for the boats to take passengers. Foreigners are finding it very uncomfortable. That’s coming under the wildlife, so I told the Minister to put some system into it. 

Then take Hikkaduwa, Mirissa and Unawatuna, all the sewerage is being diverted to the bays, where the tourists are bathing and enjoying the sea. In some places they have done tests on the sea water, and they are highly contaminated. Luckily, the tourists have not been exposed. If that is going to happen, how will we develop tourism? So we will have some supervision by the local authorities to ensure not to pass any plan unless they have a pit for sewerage and those who don’t have pits to be prosecuted, because they’ll quietly put it all to the bay and the whole thing gets polluted. We have to bring processes to address coastal erosion too.

Are you planning to develop cruise tourism?
Of course. We had a seminar. The Chairmen and Vice Chairmen from the world’s top cruise companies were here during the Maritime Conference. Their suggestion is that we should have a separate pier catering for the cruises. But we said that for now you can use what is there, and as it develops, we will certainly go into that.

What about MICE tourism?
That’s an industry we have to canvass. Our problem is that we have only two convention halls. BMICH and Nelum Pokuna. They are not big enough, and we need to have more accommodation also. Nevertheless we are moving towards inviting conventions.

Is the government planning on developing convention centres?
There are two or three investors who want to do that. One man who met me wants to do it near Water’s Edge. 

What about the environmental concerns there?
There are some safeguards we must look into, but priority has to be encouraging investment. When investments come in, the country benefits, and the people benefit.

Are SLTDA’s flagship projects in Kalpitiya and Kuchchaveli going ahead?
 I have got several invitations to come to Kalpitiya and see how it is. The Ministry is a facilitating and regulating body. We won’t go beyond that. We won’t invest. We will promote. We will give the guidelines.

In Kalpitiya, there are one or two islands which are inhabited by the fishermen. We must not disturb them. But there are so many others.

Are you going to invite people to bid for them?
Yes, investors must come. And if they come, the fishermen will also benefit. It’s a circle, isn’t it?

There were allegations that under the previous government, some islands had been bidden for and nothing has happened. Is that true?
Yes, that problem is there. Money has been made under the carpet. But they’re still under state control. But we’re determined. One is to safeguard those fishermen, the other is to make use of the other islands for tourism development.

Then there are a large number of lands in the Eastern Province like Nilaveli, where certain investors have purchased land and not done anything. There are enough people now wanting land to put up hotels and start businesses. So we have to now move in to investigate and find who are these people and give them an ultimatum and say ‘if they’re not going to do it, we’re going to take over’.

What about the infrastructure development in these areas?
That is a matter for the state and we’ll give some recommendations there. 

Thanks to the previous government, they did a lot of roads, highways and so on. That is why people can get around with no problem. 

But that’s not all. There must be other facilities and opportunities that should be provided. Kalpitiya is a relatively new destination, and there was a hotel in the Dutch Bay which was sold out. That fellow couldn’t pay the loans. 

Are you doing anything about hotel grading based on sustainability? Some people say that the 5-star system 
is archaic.

People are now constructing boutique hotels, and a lot of them are going for environmentally-friendly things. We have brought in one restriction that by the sea, you can’t have more than 3-floors. Otherwise you obstruct the sea and so on. There are some restrictions like that, but at the same time we are encouraging this concept of boutique hotels at places where not a lot of people move around.

When are we starting promotions? Wasn’t the Rs. 200 million ad campaign stopped?

No, we halted it, because when we took over, a lot of complaints and petitions came saying that there has been fraud and so on in the process. 

What we’re saying is that there are others who were deprived from participating; allow them to come in. Then we’ll evaluate the whole thing. Just because there are complaints and petitions we can’t stop it. We’ll evaluate the whole thing and go with it. There’s no reason to stop it.

What will be the focus of the campaign?
That this is a country that provides a cross section of entertainment. We have the sea with surfing, whale watching and beaches. Then in interior regions the wildlife—especially, other than lions, most other animals are here--golf courses, mountain hiking, tea industry, so many things, within a couple of hours that you can reach. There are a lot of good things in Jaffna. We’re trying to encourage people to go there.

Now how many people want to come and visit our heritage sites and like Sigiriya and Buddhist temples? A lot of people. When I went to Japan, for them, this is also another adventure; Sigiriya, Dambulla, Pollonnaruwa. But the problem is that we don’t have proper regulations.  

People are charging random amounts, but there are no proper toilets and other infrastructure. Those are the things we have to provide. We’re charging Rs. 5,000 to enter but there’re no facilities there.

Are we going to change the slogan of Sri Lanka Tourism with the new campaign?
That is under consideration. The brand is very important. There was the Small Miracle, the Miracle of Asia and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and then there was the tea branding. So these people will come up with something.
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