It is now common knowledge in Sri Lanka that the Maldivian Republic has become a preferred holiday destination particularly in Europe and an industry that is relatively new in that country has today given the Maldivian people the highest per capital income in South Asia. The fact that a small country, that once used to pay tribute to the British Crown with gifts to the Governor-General of what was then Ceylon, had progressed dynamically during the contemporary period on the back of the fast growing global tourism industry certainly offers a lesson to us in Sri Lanka of the potential of the travel industry here. We glimpsed and profited from that some decades ago, but lost what we built to the communal riots of July 1983 and the war that has followed. Yet industry professionals believe that the picture can turn for the better almost overnight provided we get our act in place and demonstrate to the world that Sri Lanka is not the dangerous place that some of today’s headline project it to be.
The success of the tourism industry in the Maldives is the result of the natural splendour the thousands of uninhabited islands in the archipelago as well as the pragmatic policies that had been followed by the Male’ government to maximize the potential of the islands with a judicious mix of local and foreign investment. Lankans are familiar with the water bungalows that the Maldivian resorts offer holiday makers, either because some of the more fortunate among us have been able to savour their delights or because we have seen the postcard-pretty pictures with which they are promoted published in our newspapers. These villas are literally built over azure blue waters where marine life abound in unbelievable plenty providing a kaleidoscope of colour at any and every reef, or even a small patch of coral. You don’t have to be a skin diver to take in the view. Just dunking your head under water will do!
No wonder then that the Aitken Spence Group of Companies, one of the early entrants into the Maldivian tourism industry, has taken great pride in winning the top award for water villas in the World Travel Awards 2008 on the votes of 167,000 travel agencies, tour and transport companies and tourism organizations in 160 countries worldwide. As we report in our business pages today, Aitken Spence Chairman Harry Jayawardena, called the award an `Oscar’ of the travel trade. He made the point that building on water is no easy task and that their water villas have been built in-house with Lankan expertise. Doing that, rather than relying on contractors, had saved money for Aitken Spence, no doubt. But above that it had demonstrated that although we Lankans have an unfortunate habit of denigrating ourselves, there are skills here that can be harnessed in many spheres.
Sri Lankan companies have not lost faith in tourism altogether as the industry has demonstrated an amazing resilience, bouncing back after the many setbacks of the recent decades. But it has been more or less a roller coaster ride and new investors, understandably, are holding their horses. The industry grapevine has it that an international franchise operator, whose brand was to adorn a city property under construction, has placed his plans on hold. If it is possible for us to see the end of the war and the consequent LTTE terror, the sky is possibly the limit of potential in the tourism industry. We, after all, offer much more than just sun and sand as the Maldives does. True, the Maldives does offer a unique product. Its many small islands are perhaps the world’s last Shangri La to which sun worshippers can escape. But it does not have the cultural and geographical diversity that we offer and we too have some magnificent beaches. Sri Lanka that an ancient traveler described as the best island of its size in the world, has within our 25,000 square miles a possibly unmatched geographical diversity ranging from the cool temperatures of the hills to the warm plains, national parks where wildlife abound, ruined cities including Sigiriya which is a World Heritage site and much more. But we are not the only girl on the beach, as the late Mr. Anandatissa de Alwis remarked during his day as tourism minister. There are competing destinations minus the danger – real or perceived.
The travel advisories some countries have issued have made it difficult for our hoteliers to sell their rooms. Such advisories, Harry Jayawardena said at Friday’s news conference, also results in insurers refusing to sell policies to people planning holidays in affected countries. Sri Lanka’s hotel and tourism industry, like Airlanka and its successor, SriLankan Airlines, imparted skills that Lankans have been able to market abroad. Despite the current downturn, hotels are complaining about losing trained staff to the Middle East and elsewhere. When companies like Aitken Spence venture overseas, they offer opportunities of foreign postings to their staff looking for jobs abroad. Already the company’s hotels employ over 500 Lankans in the Maldives and other opportunities have opened in India and Oman. This would also be true of companies like John Keells Holdings who too have invested in the Maldives and is looking at other offshore opportunities in hoteliering.
Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda has got the long talked of partnership between the government and the industry to promote destination Sri Lanka off the ground. He has also found good people, like the incumbent Chairman of the Tourist Board, to get cracking with the many tasks at hand. Company reports that are coming out have warmly welcomed these developments. But the primary task is to end the war and terrorism. We can glibly argue that no tourist had ever been caught up in a terrorism incident and that unlike in some countries like Egypt they have not been the targets of terror. Yet when somebody planning a holiday here reads of a bus bomb or a train bomb, compounded by negative travel advisories from their own countries, would he/she not think of an alternative? Charter operators are forced to take note of these advisories that also have insurance implications. While our tourism industry has amply demonstrated it has what it takes to make a go of the country’s natural attributes including the friendliness of its people, the big challenge is to establish to the satisfaction of the world that Sri Lanka is a safe country to visit.