‘Oman and Sri Lanka can further boost tourism ties’

MUSCAT: Relations between Sri Lanka and Oman are going from strength to strength and the new Sri Lankan ambassador, Asoka Girihagama, hopes to do his bit to further boost the already robust ties.

Girihagama, who started his stint in the Sultanate early this month, told Times of Oman in an exclusive interview that he hopes to improve the trade, cultural and tourism ties on a priority basis.

This is Girihagama’s first assignment as ambassador and prior to this appointment, he was a Director General for the Consular Affairs division at the Ministry of External Affairs. "While my primary objective is to strengthen relations between Sri Lanka and Oman, I have a list of objectives that I hope to accomplish.

Among the first is to facilitate an exchange of visits between heads of the states of the two nations. Secondly, I plan to work out exchange of ministerial and official level visits," the ambassador said.

Girihagama is sure his new assignment will be a memorable one.

"We share very close bilateral ties. Our relationship goes back to so many decades. Besides, Oman and Sri Lanka are dealing at the international level since we are members of organisations such as Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)," he said.

Talking about trade figures, the ambassador said that in the year 2010 exports from Sri Lanka to Oman stood at $ 9.3 million. Exports from Oman to Sri Lanka stood at $ 93 million.

Stating that Oman can invest in different sectors in Sri Lanka, the ambassador said, "After conclusion of our war against terrorism in May 2009, some regions are being developed by the Government of Sri Lanka with the support of international community. There are lots of development projects taking place.

For example, many roads and bridges are being developed. Oman can invest in the country through infrastructure and agricultural projects."

Girihagama explained that the northern and eastern parts of the country which have been devastated by the 30-year war need to be rebuilt from the scratch.

The ambassador sees a big potential in close cooperation in the tourism sector "since both countries are tourist destinations".

"We can both learn from each other on how to develop tourism. I would be meeting the Sultanate’s minister responsible for tourism to take this forward.

I am also planning to meet outbound tourism agents so that the embassy can give them accurate information about Sri Lanka and suggest packages and destinations," he said.

Last year, around 1,500 Omani citizens travelled to Sri Lanka.

"We hope to improve upon these numbers," he said.

Informing that there are around 25,000 Sri Lankans living in Oman, the ambassador said he hopes to work closely with the community members.

"As part of the process I shall be interacting with members of Sri Lankan Social Club and Sri Lankan School’s board of directors."

Considering that a majority of the Sri Lankans living in Oman fall in the blue collar category, he said the Sri Lankan government conducts pre-departure awareness programmes for citizens travelling to Middle East countries.

"Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) is the government’s legal body to look after everything concerning the Sri Lankan expatriate community.

When a Sri Lankan citizen goes abroad for employment purposes, they have to register with this organisation. They should submit an agreement between the employee and the job agent. The embassy also gets information from (SLBFE) about persons taking up jobs in the respective countries," Girihagama said.

"But still some of them end up taking up employment in different countries through unscrupulous agents," he added.

The ambassador also talked about the stranded workers’ plight that the embassy is facing, which is leading to a difficult situation for the embassy.

"After working with their employers for a few months, some of the Sri Lankan employees who come to the UAE through job agents run away because of various issues. The first thing they do is approach the employment agent.

What the agent does is, since he can’t find an employer in the UAE who will to take them (because they are banned), he hands them over to Omani sponsors. These employees land in Oman through the Oman-UAE border.

"After working for two or three months with the Omani sponsor, they once again run away and approach the embassy. We have a safe house in the embassy where such people are provided accommodation. At the moment we have 35 people in the safe house, half of whom are workers who have landed here through UAE. We are worried over such issues as the number of those seeking shelter is on the rise," he said.

While wanting to solve this issue, the ambassador wants to conclude agreements in the manpower sector, foreign affairs, tourism and trade during his tenure. (Times of Oman)

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