‘Political stability imperative if Sri Lankan tourism is to be revived’

- Hiran Cooray


Hiran Cooray
(Pix by Dharmasena Welipitiya)

By Randima Attygalle

Speaking to The Sunday Island, Chairman, Jetwing Symphony PLC, Hiran Cooray, one of the most respected hospitality leaders of the country, elucidates on the challenges the Sri Lankan hospitality sector and the country as a whole need to counter, to emerge from the rubble and the pain caused by the brutal Easter Sunday attacks.

Q: From being recognized as the tourist hotspot of 2019 by global forums such as Lonely Planet, overnight we have being pulled into an abyss with travel advisories imposed on the country. How challenging will it be for the tourism industry to navigate this sudden transition?

A: It’s going to be extremely challenging. Earlier, we were prepared for this kind of eventualities and for the last ten years thankfully, we did not have the necessity to be prepared for a calamity of this nature. Hence, we were looking only at the brighter side of life all the time. In terms of the industry, it was all about improving our services, our products, the experiences we offer the traveller, planning to bring in our destination marketing into our own marketing at company level and so forth.

Big investments were done, new hotels were being put up and suddenly we had to reverse everything overnight. So, it is going to be an arduous journey for the industry. If we are to restore our image as a sought-after destination once more, it is imperative that we eliminate the instability in the country.

If we look beyond tourism, which is only a by-product of a stable fabric, as a country we have to come out of this rubble. We have gone through several turbulent times. We have gone through insurgencies, a war and a tsunami. Yet, we were able to believe in ourselves under an able leadership in the country.

It is only if we are to have clear short term and long term solutions for this crisis under proper leadership, we can come out of it quite gracefully and in a way that is acceptable not only to Sri Lankans but to the world at large.

Q: In this context, what short-term and medium to long terms interventions do you suggest?

A: Short-term, through military work, the government has to ensure that this type of carnage will not repeat. At this juncture, we should be thankful to our armed forces for coming forward to rescue us once more. Although, the targets were hotels and churches this time, we need to be conscious at all times that the perpetrators may have other targets in future, hence security measures need to have a holistic approach.

During the recovery process, the government must have a clear communication strategy. Ideally, there should be a spokesman communicating the political and military situation to the public. This has to be clearly articulated not only to our people but to the rest of the world as well to convince the world that we are in control of the situation as a country.

The second blow after the carnage is the dysfunctional government. It is heart-wrenching to see international reports claiming that the Sri Lankan government is dysfunctional. If the country’s leaders cannot see this, it is such a shame.

Medium to long-term, we need to think of ourselves as Sri Lankans. We are a nation of only about 22 million people and if this small population cannot live in brotherhood, there is a serious problem here. One thing I personally enjoyed most about our country is the religious freedom we enjoyed without ever making it a burden- be it at the temple, church, kovil or the mosque.

We need to come together and, as I said before, tourism is only a by-product of the country, first and foremost we should be able to live happily as Sri Lankans. This togetherness itself will be a solution.

Q: What incentives do you think the government should be offering the industry for it to be revived?

A: Huge investments have been made on loans and right now investors are unable to furnish repayments. So, there has to be a softening of the interests, grace periods to start repaying the loans etc. Then of course it requires working with foreign governments to relax travel advisories imposed on the country now.

Until the travel advisories are lifted, tour operators cannot actively market the destination. The Hotels Association has already communicated the needs of the hour to both the President and the Prime Minister and it is imperative that interventions are made in the best interest of industry players.

Q: Apart from the national-level security measures, what internal security measures can the industry take to assure the security of the guests?

A: Each organization can adopt its soft measures, which were not followed so far since there was no threat earlier. Now that there is a perceived threat again, we need to be more vigilant. However, the hospitality industry’s challenge is more than in the other sectors as it cannot create the impression that each guest is a terrorist or a suicide bomber.

Today, we need to equip our staff with new skills and training to cater to the security threat. Once again, these strategies will have to be region-centric. What is adopted in Colombo cannot be implemented out of Colombo. Each company has to look at its strengths and weaknesses and plan their action accordingly.

Q: Are there any arrivals despite travel advisories?

A: Yes, although not in significant numbers.

I was in Jaffna a couple of days ago visiting one of our hotels where I met some British tourists who were travelling from Jaffna to Trinco and from there to Negombo. Similarly, there are tourists in Sigiriya and Dambulla. So, there are those who travel despite restrictions. However, until travel advisories are relaxed, larger tour operators cannot officially sell the destination.

Q: How important is it for us to learn lessons from similar incidents in other parts of the world such as in the case of Bali, Kenya and France and come up with home-grown strategies to counter possible future threats?

A: It is of absolute importance that we develop our own tools, and of course, we can be inspired by similar global experiences and their reaction. We can study their modus operandi. In our company, we have a French director who is working with us and we are using his experience in Paris - what the French authorities did to bring Paris back to the tourism map after the attacks there.

I need to reiterate here that we cannot replicate the French experience or any other similar experience as we need to be sensitive to our psyche and setting. In terms of tourism promotion, we cannot immediately turn back the clock and start promoting the destination. We need to be sensitive and mindful of the fact that so many have lost their lives. We need to give them the due respect they deserve. Once all that is done, life has to move on.

One thing we are comforted with at this point of time is the overwhelming support - the love and compassion we have received from the international community at large. Once the situation is brought under control, I’m certain that the world will start patronizing our country again.

Q: At this decisive juncture, how crucial do you think it is to harness the potential of Sri Lankan skill to the maximum?

A: I believe if there is proper leadership, the best in everybody can be brought out. Be it those in active service or retirement - if correct leadership can be provided, the goodness in everyone can come out. This is the need of the hour. If the potential of every citizen is not tapped, we will go into slumber and depression. I sincerely hope even in the final hour, leadership will prevail to bring out the best in our people because we are as good as anybody else out there in the world.

Q: In the aftermath of the terror and pain, we saw religious leaders coming to a common platform in the best interest of the country. How important do you think it is to sustain this solidarity in time to come?

A: It is this solidarity which will give us the greatest strength to heal the wounds and pain. It symbolized their condemnation of any attack on humanity because I believe the attacks were spurred by deep hatred towards humanity. People have so many unanswered questions right now - why was the Catholic community targeted? What wrong have they done to deserve this carnage?

In a setting, where people are baffled and political leadership has failed, it is this religious solidarity which will sustain a wounded nation. The leadership given by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at a time when nearly 300 of his people have been brutally killed is such a godly gesture. The support rendered to him by the Buddhist prelates and other religious leaders is exemplary.

Q: On a personal level, how did the tragedy impact the Jetwing family?

A: In terms of human loss, we lost two of our colleagues and a mother of another colleague in the Katuwapitiya Church blast. We also lost one of our guests from Jetwing Travels staying at the Kingsbury hotel. It was a devastating day, and the toll it will have on the affected families is unimaginable.

Business loss wise, the next couple of months are going to be very difficult for us, but we are looking after all our staff. Our strength is our people. We have to look after them in times of trouble and see how we can move forward together.

Q: As a hospitality leader who prides in the Sri Lankan spirit how do you think that it can be put into test once more in this national hour of need to bring back the signature ‘Sri Lankan smile’ to our hospitality industry?

A: We have gone through so many trials and tribulations in the past and if we look at the brighter side of this catastrophe, the opportunity is there for us to emerge as a united Sri Lanka. If we are to realize an undivided Sri Lanka, the four main faiths of this nation should have a collective voice and the leadership must enable a framework to spur this unity. We got rid of one menace ten years back and we should not create another. Despite our pain and our suffering we continue to smile and help each other- this is the beauty of this island nation.

The majority of our people, despite their religious faith, are galvanized in times of adversity and if brotherhood can prevail, everything else will fall into place, including the hospitality sector.

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