In May this year, Sri Lanka will be completing its 50th year of planned tourism. Although the influx of foreign visitors to Sri Lanka had started during the later stages of the British rule, Sri Lanka was known to travellers all over the world for many centuries ago. World-renown travellers of the calibre of Fahien, Hyun San, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo had visited the country from time to time. Manthai or Mahathittha in Sri Lanka was even the main seaport on the Ancient Silk Route from China to Europe. However, a systematic approach in planning and development of tourism in Sri Lanka initiated in 1966.
Ceylon Tourist Board, the National Tourism Organization (NTO) was set up by a Parliament Enactment; namely Ceylon Tourist Board Act No.10 of 1966, recognizing the economic benefits that tourism could bring to a country. Two years later, Tourism Development Act No. 14 of 1968 was enacted by the Parliament to enhance the legislator of the Tourist Board for planning and development of tourism in Sri Lanka.
Today the vision for Sri Lanka Tourism is to be in a position that Sri Lanka, as one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the world.
The tourism industry in Sri Lanka has gone through good and bad periods over past 50 years and the industry has survived from several turmoil and setbacks, showing its resiliency. First, it was due youth insurrection in 1971, then oil crisis. Later the ethnic conflict since 1983. Thirdly, terrorists attacks in Colombo city in 1996 and Katunayake International Airport in 2001. Lately, the 2004 tsunami disaster that caused a severe blow to the industry. However, Sri Lanka tourism has shown its resiliency by picking up of tourist arrivals no sooner the difficult situation ceased. Tourism has now been identified as an important component of the Sri Lankan economy, given its position as the third highest foreign exchange earner. It is also making a significant contribution to the generation of employment and regional income.
It is believed that the tourism industry in Sri Lanka is now heading towards a boom since 30- year civil war in the country ended in May 2009. For Sri Lanka, the year 2015 was the best with 1,798,380 tourist arrivals into the country which was the highest reported so far. Last year, the number of tourist arrivals was 1,527,143. In the meantime, Sri Lanka is targeting 2.2 million tourists this year to coincide with the 50th year of planned tourism.
At present, Sri Lanka Tourism has gone through restructuring process with the enactment of the Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005 by Parliament, the Sri Lanka Tourist Board was restricted to give away of its legal power to four newly formed tourism authorities such as Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lanka Convention Bureau and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management.
The main tourist generating markets to Sri Lanka were India, the UK, Germany, the Maldives, France, Russia, Australia etc. However, China is also showing clear signs of sending a large number of its tourists to Sri Lanka.
The country has benefited in many ways from tourism during the past 50 years. For Sri Lanka, foreign tourist arrival means an additional source of foreign exchange earning which helps to lessen the adverse balance of payment situation. It also helps to diversify the main single crop (tea) economy further. Tourism industry employs a direct work force of 112,550 and provides further indirect employment opportunities to157,600 marking up a total of 270,150. Tourism is contributing to the national income directly through tourist expenditure and indirectly through the operation of the multiplier effect. Further, it contributes to the central and local government revenues by way of direct and indirect taxes & fees, making way for rural development. In addition, growth stimulus provided for underdeveloped sections of the economy i.e. batik, handicrafts, ornaments, lace, gem and jewellery etc., and had helped to revive of ancient arts and traditions, namely Kandyan dancing, folk arts, cultural events etc.
In a nutshell, tourism is a force which, if not planned & managed, could have serious negative impact on environment, culture and society. However, if properly manoeuvred, it could continue providing great economic benefits as it has done since 1966 under the guidance of Sri Lanka Tourism.