De Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Time Out for Tourism. LMD. August 2006. Page 160. Volume 13, Issue 01.
Using a tough year to re-tool and re-energize.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne fears that the worst of the years is yet to come

July 2001 was seen by many as the worst year for Sri Lanka when the LTTE attacked the airport. Travel advisories which crippled the tourism industry followed suit. It took much lobbying for them to be removed. The asymmetry between the reaction of the west to acts of terrorism at home and overseas has been commented upon by many, including PATA during this year. But that’s another story. Following the subsequent ceasefire, tourism took off dramatically in Sri Lanka. All of a sudden Sri Lanka was the darling of the west. The new re-discovery. Travel writers queued to discover or re-discover Sri Lanka in much the same way as Sri Lankans flocked to the east and north-eastern coasts.

By 2004 things were looking so good, before the start of the 2004/2005 winter season I had to warn our naturalist guides to expect problems on tour. Sri Lanka did not have enough star class rooms to cater to demand. It was inevitable that groups on tour would arrive at hotels to find over-bookings had resulted. This happens anywhere in the world, because with quotas allocated to tour operators it is hard to accurately gauge how many rooms will actually be utilised during peak periods. The Boxing Day Tsunami of 26th December 2004 swept it all away. In addition to the tragic loss of life, it stopped dead in its tracks a tourism boom which was beginning to gather pace. It was as bad as the airport attack of July 2001. But it was different in that it was not an act of terrorism but an act of God. We told clients that the best way to help Sri Lanka was to travel to Sri Lanka. They would not get in the way of relief efforts. They would not consume food and resources depriving the survivors of the Tsunami. They would help people all over the island by continuing to holiday in Sri Lanka. The international media carried the call and many responded. Many in the tourism industry were glad to break even that year.

There was nevertheless an un-founded optimism amongst the tourism industry. The country was no longer at war and the tourists would return. I did not think they would come flooding back. I had lived and or worked in London for fifteen years and I could think like a Londoner. I knew that even a natural disaster puts a country off flavour. People are reluctant to travel to countries which have suffered disasters, natural or man-made. It was important that Sri Lanka got as much positive media as it could to put it back on the agenda as an exciting travel destination. Above all this meant courting the foreign television crews who can at times reach audiences of over fifty million on some programs. I ranted and railed against the completely idiotic systems we have as a country to bar ourselves from gaining easy positive access to the foreign television audiences. I suggested some very simple steps to overcome the problems. Not surprisingly nothing happened. A nation of fools will never understand that at times it only needs simple steps for big rewards.

Next year would be better said the tourism industry. Tourists will return. I had my doubts. The specialist wildlife subsidiary I work for doubled the advertising and doubled the time we spent with the foreign media. It paid off and we overcame another bad year. The coming year, the peak season of winter 2006/7 may turn out to be the worst of all. Sri Lanka has been off flavour for two years since the Tsunami. It never regained that oomph. The excitement of re-discovering Sri Lanka by the foreign press had been killed by the Tsunami. To make matters worse, the ceasefire has deteriorated dramatically. Bombs in Colombo, gruesome attacks on civilians, air strikes in retaliation are now filling the headlines. Would a tourist want to travel to Sri Lanka when even those in the country have decided so much of their own country is off limits? Yes, but only if they are convinced that the risks are not that much greater than it is to travel in many other exotic destinations which also have their share of risks. What is in our favour is a tragic sign of the times that terrorism is international. If you avoid the high risk conflict areas, one is probably no safer in London or New York than in Sri Lanka. But if the risks from terrorism is to be overcome, the positives about the island must have a chance to get some air time.

Imagine you meet a foreign television crew and you think of taking them the next day to an archeological site such as Sigiriya or Anuradhapura or national park such as Yala. Can you take them? No. The red tape will take too long. Oh dear. There is only one sensible strategy left for those in tourism. If you can, migrate your skills to related industries which are not dependent on foreign tourists. An alternative is to export your skills to a country which is politically stable and welcomes foreign investment. Investing locally, especially in areas prone to high terrorism risk, is not for those in the tourism business. This is perhaps better suited for those into poverty alleviation.

If you are stuck in domestic tourism, think of what else you can offer in addition to the tourism product you already have. If you can take tourists into relatively safe areas, this is the time to innovate new products, train your staff and market as much as you can. Use the toughest of the years, this year, to re-tool and re-engineer the way you work. If there are no tourists, you will have the time to prepare for the time when there will be peace. Finally, those with a religious inclination can always resort to prayer. Pray for peace.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife celebrity, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist for progress. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.