Since 1980, the United Nations World Tourism Organization has celebrated World Tourism Day on September 27. This date was chosen as on that day in 1970, the Statutes of the UNWTO were adopted. The adoption of these Statutes is considered a milestone in global tourism. Its purpose is to foster awareness among the international community on the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.
For Sri Lankans, as September 27 draws closer, we remember a date; a scarce four months ago - April 21, to be more specific. Just when tourism in the country was picking up in the aftermath of the devastating civil war, a bunch of terrorists exploded bombs in three churches and three tourist hotels, killing 253 people, including 40 plus foreigners, effectively nipping in the bud of the growing tourism industry in the country.
A young entrepreneur who had worked ten years out of the country had but returned four months earlier and invested his savings in the tourism industry. Since that fateful date he had all his bookings cancelled. The circumstances reduced him to the position of unemployed. Recently he found another form of employment. But he now looks to leave the country again. Hundreds of thousands of others -- both directly and indirectly -- involved in the tourism trade are facing the same fate. With numbers of tourist hotels ditching their staff, the situation has become even more difficult.
Today, fortunately, tourist arrivals are picking up gradually. But those involved in the tourism trade complain the climate of uncertainty prevailing in the country due to divisions within the government, forthcoming presidential elections and the absence of strong political leadership in the country, the tourism industry is not picking up fast as it is expected to be.
After months of near-empty hotels the 10-day 2019 Bohra (Islamic) Conference this month themed “We Believe in Sri Lanka” - attended by nearly 20,000 members of Bohra community was a very welcome sight. It proved the country was a safe destination despite tensions between the Muslim sects, the conference was held without a mishap.
The conference also took place at a time the local Muslim community was living in a state of fear, with many pseudo-nationalists and their allied organisations taking out anti-Muslim demonstrations in the wake of Easter Sunday bombings, the fact that no untoward incidents took place has helped lift to a certain extent the fear among the local Muslim community. It also showed that if the government is of a mind, it can crackdown on unruly elements bent on unleashing mayhem.
The fact that the government kept in check unruly elements while a major Muslim event was being held in the country, also raises the question as to why and how this self-same government was unable or did not take action against the pseudo-patriots when they ran riot in Negombo and Kurunegala a short while after the Easter Sunday carnage, where innocent Muslims and their economies were targeted.
Have our governments have not still learnt about the violence committed against minority communities had not brought any gains to the country. It only breed divisions, racial and religious hatred and fear.
Government in-action and state-sponsored violence against the Tamil community led our country into the near three-decade long civil war. Today the pseudo nationalists in this country are spreading divisions within our populace based on religion and ethnicity, which, as we said before spread divisions and fear. We have begun to look on ourselves as persons of a particular religious group, ethnicity or caste rather than Sri Lankans. The Asian region has many examples that countries with diverse ethnic and religious divisions had overcome these issues.
Nationalist strongmen, the leaders of the calibre of Dr. Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore are the best examples of leaders who were able to bring together the different ethnic and religious groups in their respective countries to form cohesive nations. They were able to do this by refusing to pander to the preachers of race and hate mongering. They used the full force of the law against the forces of division.
Today both Malaysia and Singapore are havens of stability. Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner and the two countries are among the major developed nations of the world.
The International Bohra Conference, which concluded peacefully a few days ago, proved preachers of religious and ethnic hatred could be reined in. It’s time to stop playing the race and religious cards to garner votes at elections and it’s time to put the country before self and emphasise unity amidst diversity.