Bringing smiles to Sri Lanka’s hard-hit tourist industry

AT A secluded holiday resort in the jungles of the central hills of Sri Lanka, I could afford a family holiday for a couple of days, thanks to the prevailing security situation in the country.

By Ameen Izzaddeen

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Published: Tue 17 Apr 2007, 8:14 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Many hotels and holiday resorts have brought down the prices to woo the local tourists. In the stock market hotel stocks have been losing ground steadily since hostilities flared up last year.

The owner of the resort where we spent the holiday told me that business was bad. "We had lots of reservations from European tourists. But all got cancelled in December-January with the security situation becoming worse," she said.

The local tourists are not her daily bread. They come only during weekends, especially when there is a long weekend, which in Sri Lankan parlance means Saturday, Sunday and a statutory holiday or two in sequence. We Sri Lankans are blessed with plenty of holidays. In addition to 104 days one gets on account of Saturdays and Sundays, every full moon day — 12 per year — is a holiday. Then festival days of all four major religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — are holidays. Fun loving Sri Lankans usually check the calendar and earmark the long holidays to go on a trip. The next long holiday is from April 28 to May 2 — Saturday, Sunday, May Day and Vesak which marks the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha.

Long holidays bring smile to the hard-hit tourist industry. When there are no foreign tourists, local tourists become kings. Years ago, when the tourist industry was booming, with the country finding it difficult to cope with the influx, the locals complained they were being discriminated against at hotels and holiday resorts. Every hotel employee, from the manager to the porter, gave preference to the white-skinned foreign tourists, who spent lavishly and tipped them generously. It was apartheid in a way. Our complaints had no effect.

But foreign tourists may also become indignant at the way they are charged for goods and services. In some restaurants and hotels, two price systems operate. Years ago, I witnessed a brawl between a Sri Lankan who had come to a restaurant with a European friend and aggressively protested at the two-tier price system.

Visit any of the tourist sites in Sri Lanka, you will see two different price systems at the ticket counter. At the elephant orphanage at Pinnawela, the notice at the ticket counter read: Foreigners Rs. 600, foreign children Rs. 500, locals Rs. 50, local children Rs. 25. The two-tier price system seems unfair when we realise that in the countries of those tourists whom we try to ‘fleece’, prices are equal for all. At Madam Toussaud’s Museum in London, for instance, every visitor pays the same entrance fee.

It is not only Sri Lanka, but India also practises this two-tier price system. At Delhi’s Kutub Minar, the entrance fee was US$ 5 for foreigners while the Indians have to pay a nominal price. During a visit to this site, our Indian host told me and two of my friends that we could pass off as Indians. We cheated the Indian government. I still feel guilty about it. Hope the people of India will forgive me. But I am sure that many South Asians must have done the same thing when they visited tourist sites in Sri Lanka.

At the recent South Asian summit in New Delhi, one of the decisions the leaders took was to charge the same fees from all South Asian nationals for visiting archaeological and heritage sites in the region. But during my visit to several such sites during this weekend, I saw no evidence that the decision has been implemented in Sri Lanka. No wonder, critics say SAARC is more a bark than a bite.

South Asians, especially the Indians, boost our tourism trade at a time when western and Japanese tourists avoid Sri Lanka. India’s booming economy has created a middle class who can afford a holiday in a neighbouring country. Cheap air fares and Sri Lanka’s visa-on-arrival policy further encourage Indian holiday makers to visit our country and help our tourism industry which has been hit by the downturn in arrivals and harsh travel advisories from top markets like Germany and France.

The Sri Lankan tourism industry should work harder to bring in more tourists from the sub continent. Besides the economic benefits, people-to-people contacts will have a positive and enriching impact on South Asian cultures.

It is true that we need tourists from the West, too. But some of them bring not only but decadent values as well. Just before the ethnic conflict flared up, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was at its zenith. As teenagers loitering in city streets, we bumped into tourists at every turn. Sri Lanka was a famous jaunt for the hippies. The local cannabis industry was also booming. Also springing up were foreigners-only beaches. Once after a sea bath, our teenage gang strayed into the nearby foreigners-only beach, defying the notice that warned intruders. A thug tried to prevent us from entering the area, but when we confronted him, he backed out. Soon we realised we were inside a semi-nudist colony.

One of the hidden mercies of the ethnic conflict is it has slowed down the diffusion of decadent values into the local culture through the tourism industry. But it has not totally stopped it. Today Colombo has several casinos and night clubs. A visit to a casino, may give one a Bangkok experience.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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