By Lakshman Ratnapala
In two weeks, the Sri Lanka tourist promotion board will mark the golden jubilee of the formal start of organised tourism development in the island by issuing a commemorative volume and next year it will host the 2017 annual summit of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), in Negombo. However, from today till May 21, PATA will convene its 2016 annual summit on the Pacific island of Guam marking 65 years of providing leadership to the global travel and tourism industry.
The relationship between the islands of the Pacific and PATA goes back a long way. The convening of the PATA Summit on the island of Guam, on this PATA anniversary, five years past the diamond jubilee, must be seen against the rationale for its founding 65 years ago, for the specific purpose of tourism development in the smaller Asia Pacific nations. It is a fascinating story. The World War, which ended in 1945, had ravaged the economies of the nations of the Pacific and Asia. Given this scenario, Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur, the Allied Commander overseeing the post-war revival of the decimated economies, was suggested the idea of tourism as an engine of national prosperity. Visionary leaders in Hawaii quickly forged the Pacific Interim Travel Association in 1951, renamed the Pacific Area Travel Association in 1952 with the objective of promoting travel to the area. This was a time when leisure travel was the prerogative of a few privileged cruise passengers. It was before the advent of jumbo jets which popularized mass tourism for the middle classes.
PATA led the way for others to emulate. It took 24 years for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) organised for government membership, to follow in 1975. Meanwhile, PATA opened its doors to all stakeholders in the industry — governments, airlines, hotels, travel agents, media and educational institutes alike – treating all as equal partners. Thus, it was that PATA launched the concept of networking among all industry players for the common good and the enhancement of business of all. But PATA stayed out of actually doing the business for its members, only providing members a common platform where they could network, exchange ideas and conduct business as equal partners. In other words, PATA levelled the playing fields for all, big and small, a concept exemplified by the unique PATA Travel Marts. PATA had to put the money where its mouth was. It had to walk the talk. It commissioned a study on the state of Pacific tourism which eventually reported, among other things, that the region’s tourism development needed direction and recommended the setting up of National Tourist Offices. That was the Checchi Report in 1962, which became the blueprint for the creation of modern national tourist organisations (NTOs), including the Ceylon Tourist Board.
PATA was not merely a pioneer; it was a visionary, led by men of vision such as Ken Chamberlain in the fields of quality product development and by Gerald E. Picolla in innovative marketing. It was PATA that introduced words such as sustainable development and cultural and environmental conservation to the travel industry vocabulary, way back in the 1970s before they became popular fads among yuppies later on.
It is my belief that PATA has failed to recognize the dynamism and the labour of love contributed by the committed and persevering members of the staff to its spectacular growth, instead focusing on ageing ‘Life Members’ who, despite their braggadocio don’t show up when it matters most, for the small island nations.
The many task forces of experts fielded by PATA to guide member states, bear testimony to PATA’s leadership and its concern for the proper management of tourism resources. Twenty five years ago, PATA launched the travel industry’s first Code for Environmentally Responsible Tourism, which has become the template for copycat programmes by others.
PATA, conscious of the need to market members’ products, developed a global network of chapters, in the 1960s the greatest travel sales force ever assembled in history, reaching out to consumers in the four corners of the world. This writer was Sri Lanka Tourist Board Director in New York in mid-1970s, operating on a small budget and used PATA Chapters extensively to promote Sri Lanka at great economy, because the chapters would provide not only the audiences but also the meeting rooms and the refreshments too at their own expense – an invaluable asset to small NTOs with minimal promotional budgets.
Human resources development, being recognized as a critical need at the time, PATA set up the School of Travel Industry Management in the University of Hawaii in 1966 leading to the inauguration of the Executive Development Institute for Tourism (EDIT). Many of the young executives in tourism in Asia were trained there. Many in the NTOs and the private sector were offered PATA scholarships to the EDIT programme.
As we celebrate this first PATA Summit on a small Pacific island destination, let us salute our relationship with PATA, which has been one of affection in guiding us through the formative years to maturity. It is one for the story books of international goodwill and cooperation. May it prosper for mutual prosperity!
(Lakshman Ratnapala is Emeritus President and CEO of PATA)