de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Rebuilding Tourism. Adoh. February. Pages 21-27.
Boxing-day tsunami and effects on tourism.
Unusual as it may seem, people of developed, industrialized nations such as Britain or France have a much higher awareness of the importance of tourism to their economies than Sri Lankans do. In Sri Lanka, people may recite in textbook fashion the importance of tourism as a foreign exchange earner. But more often than not, many associate tourism as something localized, to beach resorts like Hikkaduwa.
The statistics certainly give an inkling of the importance of tourism. It is among the five highest earners of foreign exchange. But it is in direct and indirect employment its impact has far reaching consequences to the social fabric of society. Nearly three hundred thousand people are estimated to be in direct employment in tourism. If one looks at the number of people whose income depends primarily on the health of tourism, it may well be half a million. One in ten or twenty of every Sri Lankan in employment may have a significant dependency on the health of the tourism industry.
But we as a nation don’t fully understand how much of a social and economic impact is exerted by tourism. When tourist arrivals plummet, the consequences are far reaching. Kodak, FujiFilm, Coca Cola, Elephant House, Lion Lager, etc see sales plummet. Architects and ad agencies receive fewer commissions, bookshops sell fewer high yield coffee table books, road side kiosk sellers have no buyers of mineral water, safari jeep drivers are left destitute, etc. A downturn in tourism creates an economic tidal wave which is as devastating as the physical damage caused by the Boxing Day Tsunami.
Those who survived, now have an obligation to re-build the nation and rebuild the shattered lives of many. We also have an obligation to re-build the livelihoods of those, whose means of income have been taken away. Tourism with its pervasive impact on the social and economic fabric of Sri Lanka, will be a key agent for re-generating the economy and the social structure.
The task ahead of us, within the strict context of regaining the confidence of travelers, is less daunting than after the July 2000 attack on the airport by the LTTE. The tsunami is now regarded as the world’s first truly international catastrophe. It is accepted as a natural event outside the control of governments and people. The confidence of travelers can return very soon to the Asian region and to Sri Lanka unlike with a political event. A significant act of terrorism or the outbreak of war could see confidence dented for a year or more. In this case, within a few days, we had tourists flying in. Many incoming tourists saw it as a one off natural catastrophe that is unlikely to be repeated in their lifetime.
Soon after the Tsunami, we saw many embassies and tour operators evacuating foreign nationals, as a matter of procedure. This was followed by travel advisories, which warned against travel to affected areas, especially because of the risk of epidemics. The government and the tourism industry have successfully lobbied for the severity of the travel warnings to be reduced or dropped altogether. Many people urged the foreign media to carry the message that the best way to help Sri Lanka was to understand that the damage was highly localized and that travelers would help Sri Lanka by continuing to travel.
From the 26th to the 30th of December I was in the Yala and Tissa area with teams who were searching for survivors and the dead. By the fourth day, the local communities had urged me to resurrect tourism as quickly as possible. They were very clear that they had no future and no means of living, without the arrival of tourism. It was the same message, even in the interior of the island which had not been affected at all. Many travelers heeded this message. In the first week of January, I traveled down to Galle and also north of Colombo to Negombo with local media. We interviewed several tourists who had stayed on as they had realized that by staying on they would be helping to keep their money in Sri Lanka.
My wildlife & luxury tour operating team also received a number of enquiries from concerned clients who wished to cancel of postpone their tour. Many felt it would be unethical to enjoy a holiday when there was so much suffering. We had to patiently explain that they would only add to the misery of the people if they cancelled their holiday. We reassured them that they would not get in the way of humanitarian relief or consume valuable resources need for relief. We explained that they will be helping the local communities by continuing with their travel plans. Fortunately, almost all of the special interest travelers, we communicated with, agreed to go ahead with their holiday or to re-schedule it for a few months later. As Dr Richard Thomas of BirdLIfe said ” If you have plans to visit Sri Lanka already, please don’t cancel – and if you’ve never been there, why not visit now?”.
The mainstream, package tour operators on the other hand, have lost almost three months of business. Although the mass market may have a lower yield, as the volumes are high, the total revenues are large and critical for the economy. The millions of dollars in foreign exchange and the thousands of people who depend on package tourism, leaves it an important economic engine. The hotels and the larger tour operators may have lost in the order of 30% to 60% of total tourism revenues. The timing of the Tsunami could not have been worse from an economic standpoint.
How does one recover from such a setback? I believe there are three areas the tourism industry needs to focus on. This is in addition to the need to re-build and repair the damage to the infrastructure. Firstly we need to lobby the international media to carry positive stories on how much of our infrastructure is still intact and how important it is for Sri Lanka to continue receiving visitors.
Secondly, we need to create a greater awareness of how diversified the tourism product is. The international coverage lent the impression that Sri Lanka was largely a beach destination and that much of the tourism infrastructure was heavily destroyed. Product sector brochures bringing out Sri Lanka’s cultural and nature attractions is one way we can address this. Many African countries have very impressive brochures to show case their wildlife. Sri Lanka does not. James Fair a staff writer for BBC Wildlife Magazine after a visit in August 2003 commented “I visited Sri Lanka in August last year and was astounded by the abundance and diversity of wildlife”.
Thirdly we need to create the right environment for international media to carry positive stories on Sri Lanka. Suketu Mehta who wrote on Sri Lanka for the US edition of Conde Naste Traveller says “Sri Lanka is the most beautiful country I have ever visited”. But do we as Sri Lanakns take advantage of this?
After the Tsunami, we had over 100 film crews in Sri Lanka. None of them could go into our national parks and reserves as film crews require prior permission which involves a lengthy process. We need to have a national media policy which states that film crews which do not require special privileges can enter our national parks and reserves and archaeological sites as normal paying visitors do. They will of course be governed by the same restrictions which apply to normal paying visitors. This way we will not block opportunities for positive publicity. Presently the way the country handles the media, anyone wishing to depict Sri Lanka as a haven for paedophiles or anything else negative, can do so without any hindrances. But those who can give us positive publicity have an enormous amount of red tape hurled at them.
The choice is ours, rebuild the nation with an enlightened policy towards media or suffocate ourselves with mindless stupidity and self imposed obstructions to our progress.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is the CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwing.com, Gehan@jetwing.lk)