de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Doing Our Job to Keep Sri Lanka Poor! LMD. October 2005. Page 173. Volume 12, Issue 03, ISSN 1391-135X.
As a nation we may not be doing enough to popularize our panoply of world-class historical and archaeological sites.
The game plan was simple. A quick dash to Dambulla for some pictures of the famous cave temples. This was to be followed by continuing to Polonnaruwa to photograph a few of the famous sites at Polonnaruwa. There are not many countries in which one can visit two sites of international archaeological importance on the scale of Polonnaruwa and Dambulla, as a day trip from a capital city. But Sri Lanka is different. It is studded with historical or archeological jewels which should have the world beating a path to its door. Hmm….. actually not quite, but I was traveling on a mission to play my part to make it a reality one day.

There are many difficulties in promoting Sri Lanka. We have heard the reasons all before. A reason discussed less is the lack of glossy books which inspire and encourage visitors to Sri Lanka. Visit a bookshop in London, New York or Paris there will be an array of books on Egypt’s monuments and pyramids. Coffee table books or learned tomes or glossy catalogues on Indian art, Indonesian art, the Aztecs and Mayas will occupy several shelves of book space. But alas, there is very little in terms of glossies on Sri Lanka produced by international publishers and distributed internationally. The better stocked book shops will have the Insight Guide, a beautiful book. Bonechchi have done another larger format but portable colour book. On the travel guide front we do better as Bradt, Lonely Planet, Footprint and a few publishers have done travel guide titles. These are in the ‘how to do it and where to stay’ genre, packed with information. But by and large they are single colour books with at the most a small section of colour plates.

The tourism industry, not surprisingly focus their energies on promoting Sri Lanka through their business counterparts. The foreign tour operators are feted at trade fairs to encourage them to send clients to Sri Lanka. From time to time special promotions are offered, often with price as the incentive. The industry’s focus on the business end of the spectrum is understandable. But as a nation, we may not be paying attention to the customer end. When John Smith walks into a British travel agent’s office, he is confronted with a choice of destinations. He may be able to pick and choose holidays from a hundred countries. Why should he choose Sri Lanka? One reason may be the price. A one week holidays with flights, at a price less than the return air fare if booked separately, may be reason enough. But Sri Lanka is now looking to move away from the cheap and cheerful tag. We want the quality tourists paying better prices. Attracting the mid to high end means creating the right perception amongst the consumers. This means very good media coverage in the newspapers, magazines and book racks in the target consumer market.

Sri Lanka has never been very strong in being showcased on foreign bookshelves. I had been fortunate enough to receive an opportunity by New Holland to do so. A publisher based in London with offices in New York, Cape Town and Sydney, they have a strong world-wide distribution mechanism. An 80 page, full colour book by them, a souvenir guide to Sri Lanka was bound to make it to foreign book shelves. My visit to Dambulla and Polonnaruwa was to take images for this book.

I was street savvy enough to realize that the best way to go about it would be discretely. I anticipated that announcing my intentions to further promote the cultural triangle would be met with red tape rather than welcoming hand shakes and nominations for any local hero awards.

In fact things got off to a worst start than I had anticipated. On the A6 before Kurunegala, a bus pulled over. The car behind it and mine overtook the bus. It was straight road with good visibility with no on-coming cars and no vehicles immediately behind. To my surprise both cars were flagged down by traffic cars for committing a traffic offence. I innocently enquired as to the nature of the offence, as neither vehicle was speeding or driving dangerously. One of the two officers flew into a rage and said that he was raising the gravity of the offence to one which would require a visit to the courts by my driver. They also said that they have run out of forms, which if filled out by them only requires a visit to the Post Office to pay the fine. Now, an additional visit to the Post Office is required. If we had an efficient police service, they would make sure that they had the relevant forms, before they ventured out.

The first car decided to accept what was blatant violation by the police as it was less hassle to take the slip, go to the Kurunegala Police station, take another slip of paper, go to the post office and pay the fine and then go back to the police station to have the license released. I appealed to the second police officer who said he had not seen anything as he was busy filling out slips. My driver appealed again, explaining that I was an ‘oddball’ who had lived in the UK for 15 years and had gone ‘funny’. He implored them not to take any notice of me and explained it was his misfortune to work for me. The explanation was favorably received and the charge was lessened to one that did not require a court appearance and simply involved the police station-post office-police station route. This way only an hour would be wasted for a traffic offence that was not committed. Seething with fury, I suggested we meet the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Police Station. My driver politely enquired whether I was still interested in photographing Dambulla and Polonnaruwa. We pressed on without seeking out the OIC. A few days later a Sinhala newspaper carried an account of a police officer confessing in court that they routinely fabricated traffic violation charges to meet the daily targets set for them.

At the Cultural Triangle things got off to a promising start. The Dambulla cave temple complex is administered by a chief monk who understands the need to be visitor friendly. I wish the venerable monk could be put in charge of all of Sri Lanka’s cultural sites, national parks and reserves and museums. A cafe, internet access and a museum are on offer on arrival. Photographers are welcome, especially serious photographers who wish to use tripods. Not once was I challenged about using a tripod within the caves (as a precaution I had also checked before hand). Not one of the caretakers even blinked when local and foreign visitors went about with videos humming softly.

At the Quadrangle in Polonnaruwa, things did not go so well. Visitors walked about clicking happily with cameras of all shapes and sizes. I tried to do the best in awful, overcast lighting by mounting my camera on a tripod. Obviously a dangerous thing to do as one of the security personnel demanded my ID and held a discussion with his colleagues. “Do you have permission” he demanded. “No, I did not know that permission is required to photograph the cultural monuments. I see a lot of visitors taking pictures” I replied. “Huhh, but of you are taking pictures for an exhibition you will invariably need permission” he replied with the ‘invariably’ emphasized to a point that I feared for his vocal chords. Another thought struck his colleague. “and also if you are planning a commercial purpose like postcards”. I was in a patient mood. I explained that I had read in the newspapers only a few weeks ago that the lack of visitors was making it difficult for the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) to cover even its overheads. There were even worries on whether the staff could be paid. Would it not help the CCF to attract visitors if serious photographers took beautiful pictures that were exhibited locally and overseas, perhaps even published in books and magazines or show to friends and fellow enthusiasts at slide shows at their local photography club? As for post cards, does it not help the CCF if an individual or company puts in money and effort to sell beautiful postcards of our cultural sites? They are great as promotional items and museums and art galleries all over the world commission their publication. If our state institutions don’t have the money to engage in promotional activities, the best alternative is to encourage those who can.

They could understand the logic. Then, half apologetically they offered the reason for their over zealousness. “Just doing our job”. We are indeed a gifted nation as we have 20 million Sri Lankans who like them will zealously ‘do their job’. Regrettably most do their job to keep Sri Lanka poor and backward.

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.