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Which road is Sri Lanka Tourism on?

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


Tourism is universally recognised as a key sector of development as it generates jobs and income. Additionally, it plays a major role in portraying the image and global perception of a country as well as supporting domestic policies. Recognising the potential of tourism, most countries seek to increase the number of foreign visitors, which is an opportunity to boost their exports of services. It is no different in Sri Lanka, where the importance of tourism is high on everyone’s lips. 

I too am enthusiastic about the benefits of tourism, nonetheless, I am equally perturbed at the lack of coordinated management and as evidence suggests, there is a lot that can go wrong, because it is allowed to evolve - merely on the basis of demand. The tourism strategy must not only be about selling. It is about management, about optimizing the social, economic and environmental benefits that tourism can bring. Until the last five years, the few existing tourism strategies have been mainly about selling.  Up until now, the post-war period has merely been an uneasy extension of feigned buoyancy, where ‘arrivals’ figures (frequently overstated to demonstrate popularity in league tables), have tended to obscure the harsh realities about which direction tourism in this country is heading. Repeatedly parroting broad ambitions of achieving something in a national tourism strategy or even a well-organised approach to tourism promotion is not enough to constitute an adequate tourism strategy. 

Tourism is usually concentrated in certain regions and even more locally on small, highly popular areas which themselves need specific local plans. If the key places are not analysed, planned, developed and managed, a simple national strategy is useless. Even then, the tourists will come anyway, whether the country has a strategy… or not. The question is, what kind of tourists do we want, and are we prepared to receive and manage them to increase the benefits and decrease the problems?

The inept ‘Fire Brigade’ approach 
Overall, the current situation suffers from contradictions: at government level, there is impotent horizontal relationships (with other bureaucracies), and, vertical relations between the other stakeholders (regulators, the industry and the public) is usually superficial. In matters that need a strong regulatory approach, the overall tone is indecisive, whilst there are serious loopholes in the implementation network. The bureaucracy on the one hand has built-in flexibility (it does not offer time schedules or strict standards), whilst, on the other hand, it is full of inconsistent rigidity (where rules apply to many and are over-ruled for a favoured few). 

However, the most serious contradiction is between the desired image and the available image. The plight that has befallen the Yala National Park is a good example of a ‘disaster-in-the-making’. Despite facing huge overcrowding issues since 2012, and, rather than safeguard  the animals, the bureaucracy preferred to shield the politicians and those who have gone into the safari business to commercially exploit the park’s resources. This has resulted in a serious open access imbalance with negative impacts on visitor experience and on the park’s environment. Managing preferences and park usage conflicts is a growing challenge for all wild park administrators. But the top priority is clear: When we have to make a choice between recreation and preservation, we must always choose preservation. Hence, all policies, rules and decisions must be based on such a mandate. 

Sadly, the current measures, as elucidated by the Wildlife Director General - of informing the public not to disturb the animals during their visits, of informing the police to increase patrols to monitor all vehicles that enter the park, of setting up of road humps to slow down speeding vehicles, and of placing boards and banners to make the public aware of upholding the law is but a tragicomic reaction. The Wildlife Director General goes on to say that strict rules to check unruly behaviour will be enforced, thus sending a ‘shiver down the spine’ of every wrongdoer in the park! When things turn really bad, we adopt the inept ‘fire brigade’ approach – focusing on the crisis and making short-term decisions as panic-stricken victims rush out of their blazing homes. The emphasis here is on ‘inept’, because most fire brigades are highly trained professional outfits. The ‘inept’ ones are those who will console you that they responded to your call on time. And because it was an emergency, they had no time to verify that there was no water in the fire truck, as everyone including the firemen watches your house burn to ashes! Ideally, the road to Yala and similar wildlife parks must be one that is less travelled. Unfortunately, the road built on a policy to commercially exploit this wonderful natural habitat for wild animals, is short sighted and unconstructive!

Bigwigs to show tourism’s way forward
Earlier this week, an English newspaper, under the above captioned headline, reported that several prominent persons in the leisure industry are to be appointed to the Tourism Advisory Committee. This is in line with the Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005 to advise the minister on any matters relating to the travel and tourism industry. As per the Act, the minister can appoint not less than five and not more than 11 persons, and in this regard, the newspaper names 11 personalities from the private tribe. Verily, it is a virtual ‘who’s who’ network of corporate heavyweights. The chairmen of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) and SriLankan Airlines will join the committee in an Ex-Officio capacity, thus making it a team of 14.  

The news report also indicates the term of office of the advisory committee members to be three years.  According to the Act, quote “It shall be the duty of the Advisory Committee (AC) to tender advice on the future direction and strategy of the tourist and travel industry and make its recommendations thereon. The Minister may give special or general directions in writing as to the performance of the duties and the exercise of the powers of the AC, and the AC shall give effect to such directions. The Authority may forward any matter to the AC for its advice and the AC shall forward its advise within the shortest possible period.” unquote. 

Whilst the Act spells out the structure, member profile, term of office, and reappointment, among other guidelines, the role and responsibilities of the AC are marginally generalised and needs to be more specific. We all agree that because governing bodies have many responsibilities, committees are created to focus on special issues, activities or programmes. Simply put, committees have agendas and rules, work on assigned tasks, and make recommendations to the board. The committee reports on its progress, while the full governing body makes decisions on committee recommendations. 

What’s on the agenda?
The first item on the agenda would be for the committee to abide by certain rules, such as: a). How often will the main committee meet? b). What is the quorum where the majority of members must agree with the recommendations submitted for board consideration? c). Have a robust succession plan for membership to the committee. (The Act provides for the minister to appoint another person to temporarily act in place of the member who is unable the discharge of his office on account of ill-health, absence from Sri Lanka or any other cause). Frankly, any committee member who fails to attend two consecutive meetings should either resign or be asked to leave. d). Membership to the Advisory Committee should be voluntary and committee members should not ask to be paid for their time. (The Act ambiguously states that the members of the Advisory Committee may, where necessary be paid such remuneration out of the fund as determined by the authority).

More importantly, the AC will need be assigned certain tasks upon which their recommendations emerge. One approach could be for the main AC to break up into several advisory committees, tasked with looking into ‘core and emerging markets’, ‘meeting, conventions and incentive travel’, ‘research and key metrics’, ‘branding and regulatory framework’, to name a few. The challenge facing the committee is to dispel the public’s notion that present-day business in Sri Lanka draws on political fidelity as a matter of course. Ensuring that the committee’s recommendations are taken seriously, without been compliant to the whims and fancies of politicians is paramount. This will provide legitimacy to the existence of the committee and is one way of decoupling this overwhelming negative perception.

Is it to be the road less taken, more often taken or not taken?
Over the past few months, we have had a plethora of experts and persons employed in the hospitality industry tell us what Sri Lanka Tourism needs to do to promote itself as a preferred destination. The cacophony of opinions ranged from: “The changing landscape of Sri Lanka tourism needs a very close ear to the ground.” “No survival for Sri Lanka Tourism without professional branding.” “This informal sector is growing and it’s a good thing for the economy of this country.” “It is expected that the luxury and budget in the next five years are going to squeeze out the mid-priced accommodation.” “The way forward should be decided by the policymakers to decide whether we should take the luxury or budget path.” “Sharing economy businesses are getting very big and very fast.” “Today’s consumers will dessert a once favoured company, when even a slightest bit disappointed.” “Spending millions of dollars on one tourism campaign with nice images is not going to help the industry.” “If stakeholders fail to understand that tourism is closely related to nature, it would lead to their downfall.” to “We have reached cross-roads and we have to make a decision as to which road we will take.” Let’s draw an analogy between ‘which road to take…’ and the road trip itself! 

We all know that planning the perfect road trip can be an exhausting ordeal, where you hit many stops on the way, presenting their own set of challenges (road construction, bridges being out, and messy accidents – all guaranteed to slow you down). You need to investigate the weather beforehand too. One route may look shorter on the map, but weather can turn that short route into a long and hazardous road. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress if you map out how you’re getting to your destination before you leave. The question then arises – has Sri Lanka Tourism embarked on the trip without mapping out which road/s to take and how to get there?

(Shafeek Wahab has an extensive background in hospitality management spanning over 30 years. He is a customer experience transformist, helping organisations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. Whilst focusing on corporate education, training, consulting and coaching he is passionate about identifying emerging best practices and helping companies become more customer-centric. He can be contacted on Website:
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