People’s mentality, a hindrance to promote tourism - Diana Gamage | Sunday Observer

People’s mentality, a hindrance to promote tourism - Diana Gamage

30 October, 2022

State Minister of Tourism Diana Gamage said the people’s mentality has become a hindrance to promote the tourism industry in Sri Lanka.

The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said Sri Lanka is a country with rich heritage, beauty and weather and the whole world has accepted we have very friendly and hospitable people. “So, why are we having this mentality? That is mainly because we always look at everything in the wrong direction with the wrong eye. Therefore, we have to change the mentality of the people. Actually, there is nothing to promote Sri Lanka globally and it is being recognised globally and we are calling it Sri Lanka paradise. We are unable to bring back tourists owing to the situation that we have been facing in the past few years.”

Excerpts of the interview

Q:Sri Lanka has been an attractive destination to tourists prior to Easter Sunday attacks and Covid-19 pandemic as well as present economic situation. What are your initiatives and proposals to develop tourism in the short term?

A: Since the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, we have seen a huge decline in the tourism industry and it has come to an absolute standstill for the past few years. It was at a complete standstill last year because of Covid-19 pandemic and some other issues. At present, I have been working hard to gain some sort of development for the tourism industry. I have started to organise a ‘tournival’ which is a combination with India and we are going on a tagline as ‘welcome to Sri Lanka’.

Actually, that was something initially was going to be done with Maldives. However, the person who is organising it met me and said they would like to do it in Sri Lanka as well. They invited me for the launch to Bangalore and that was for the launch of the tournival in Maldives. I went to Bangalore for the launch and I met Maldivian Tourism Minister and also the Karnataka movie industry people and others organising the event. I managed to turn it around and bring it to Sri Lanka first.

We are planning to start the first tournival concert on December 08 where famous Indian and South Indian artistes will be joining with Sri Lankan artistes. I have planned to start it off with the first concert at Alfred Duraiappah Stadium, Jaffna on December 8. Actually, I am thinking of Sri Lanka as a one country. We need to work with the North and the East as well as the South. So, this is what I have tried to do to integrate the communities together and give them the help that they need for the North and the East. Hence, I have decided to go to Jaffna first. My plan is to develop tourism in the North and East as well. That has been an area that has been neglected. It is also a part of Sri Lanka.

The first tournival concert will be at the Duraiappah Stadium on December 08 and it will be a huge concert. Tournival has been working on attracting nearly 10,000 tourists from India. We will be working on some packages for them to come and visit Sri Lanka not only for this event but also to go around Sri Lanka and see the country’s beauty. We are planning the second concert with our artistes in Colombo on December 9. We have also planned a trade fair at BMICH from December 9 to 11 which will be going simultaneously with this event. That will give the opportunity for India and Sri Lanka to work in their trade by giving our people the opportunity to introduce whatever Sri Lanka has to offer for export purposes. There will be Indian traders as well in Sri Lanka. We are having a cricket match with the artistes of Sri Lanka and India at R. Premadasa Stadium on December 10.

Miss Tourism World will also be here from December 8 to 21. Those 80 countries will be represented in Sri Lanka which is more or less like nearly half of the world will be in Sri Lanka during the two weeks from December 8 to 21. That is something that I have been able to achieve with the team. Miss Tourism Spain is in Sri Lanka at the moment and they are touring the areas where they are going to have the mini pageants. That is also a huge achievement which I have been able to get.

Q:You have announced several new proposals to develop tourism among which is the proposal to develop nightlife which has been criticised by many sections. What is the rationale behind this proposal?

A: When I talked about night life people took it very wrong. The people have to understand nightlife means night economy. I am talking about a night economy. Everywhere in the world every country which has developed has a night economy. Because 70 percent of the revenue is generated through the night economy and 30 percent of the revenue is generated during the day economy. The day economy means the people work the whole day and then whatever the little spending they do during the day time. We spend very little during the day. What we do is we work, do our business, move around and do things and that is for earning. What we do during the day is earning more and not spending. So, what happens is once we earn it is the night time that we spend it. If a country cannot generate revenue what the people have already earned and if they can’t get back that money circulated in the country, that country can never develop. As Sri Lanka, we know when we walk out at 10 p.m., it is pitch dark and nothing is opened up and everything is shut. There is no pharmacy open after 10 p.m. in Sri Lanka to get even a Panadol. So, a country like this can never develop and we can never generate income. What I am talking about is night life should be lively and you should have things open and everything should be available.

Nightlife is where some people come to casinos to entertain themselves, some come for music and dancing at nightclubs and some people come to enjoy street foods like in Bangkok, Singapore and Malaysia. There are night stalls with food in these countries and there are shops open. This will give an opportunity to our people who are even making a little ornament out of a coconut shell to open a stall and keep it open for foreigners to purchase. This is what I am talking about night life but the people think prostitution is the only thing when you talk about night life. It is very unfortunate because the people’s mentality has to be changed in Sri Lanka.

Q:In the phase of decline in the number of Western tourists, are there any initiatives to get more tourists from India, China, Japan and other such countries?

A: Yes. At the moment, I am concentrating on India. It is vital if we can get tourists from our neighbouring country India which has a population of nearly 1.5 billion and the flying time is also very short. There are so many things we can promote between our culture and Indian culture. There is a lot more to come in the future and negotiations are going on with India at the moment. I am trying to bring thousands of Indian tourists to Sri Lanka.

We are also targeting Japan because there are lots of high-end travelers and a large number of them travel for religious and cultural purposes. Now Sri Lanka has got lots of things to offer when it comes to culture and religion. What we have been doing is just selling sun, sea and sand and showing Sigiriya, Dambulla and Anuradhapura. Are we maintaining or changing? No. Nothing is happening.

There is another scam going on which needs to be stopped. Tourists are being ripped off in these places which is absolutely wrong. I have got lots of complaints from tourists and they are reluctant to come to Sri Lanka and visit these places. Tourists prefer to go and have a sunbath or in the sea but we are charging so much for each and every place that they visit.

We may be in an economic crisis but that doesn’t mean we are going to rip off the tourists who are coming into the country. You can’t do things like that. When you do that, what happens is they don’t come. They can go to any other country. So, we have to be able to handle these things. First these scams have to be stopped and give the tourists the freedom and not rip them off when they come to Sri Lanka.

Q: Why hasn’t Sri Lanka with many more attractions than countries such as Singapore been unable to attract a similar number of tourists so far?

A: We can’t attract tourists like Singapore because of our stupid mentality. This is what I am trying to say. Singapore is a 247A country. What has Singapore got? Do they have even a quarter of the things that we have in the country that God or nature has given us? Absolutely, nothing. We have so many things and we are not utilising them properly. So, we have to open up the country. To be honest, I would love to have 247 areas open up in Sri Lanka where people can just go and enjoy. Don’t think only the tourists are enjoying themselves. The locals have nowhere to go either. That is why the locals tend to take rupees and systems like undial have come. The people are making their rupees into dollars and going to other countries to enjoy their lives because we have nothing to open in this country. That is the reason. Don’t we have to stop this. We have to stop it and give them those facilities in this country.

Q: Have adequate steps been taken to ensure safety and convenience of tourists who visit Sri Lanka despite present economic conditions. For example, if enough fuel is available for tourism vehicles and enough diesel for generators at hotels?

A: That is an issue because I have got complaints from hoteliers when the electricity is turned off there is no diesel for the generators to operate. So, obviously that is a huge issue and that is something we need to prioritise. Therefore, priority has to be given to these people if we are to get any tourists into this country.

I am going to bring some proposals that the tourist hotels have to be given a diesel quota for their generators. If not, they can’t carry on with this current situation with no fuel and electricity.

We have to find ways to have 247 electricity. That is the way we have to go ahead and not have generators in the first place. We have to find a way to carry on giving the whole country 247 electricity. The solar power system is the one way of doing it. God has given us the sun in this country. So, why aren’t we using what nature has provided us? We are not doing it. No wonder Sri Lanka is here today. We are not properly utilising anything in this country. We should do that. We have given QR passes for the tourists who are coming into the country. They have to pay for it and get the fuel pass. Unfortunately, that is the most unsuccessful thing that was done. I have got so many complaints about it right now. The petrol sheds themselves haven’t got the facility yet to use it. This is the complaint I have been getting. It has disgusted the tourism industry and tourists are complaining. I don’t know how they get my number but they do. I have had more than 25 phone calls already from tourists regarding the matter.

Q: With the Covid-19 pandemic and also economic crisis, many jobs have been lost in the tourism sector. What are the steps being taken to revive these jobs and also attract more youth to tourism jobs?

A: As we know everything was shut down. So many hotels and restaurants were shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For these people to start up again, we have to be able to help them. There are some people in the tourism sector who have obtained loans and they cannot pay it. Because of the high interest rates, they are paying more than what they have got in interest as well.

We as a Government have to discuss how we are going to give these particular people relief and how to pay back these loans to restart their business ventures. As the Government, we have to help these people to start off again. Otherwise, it is very difficult and they can’t do it on their own. We have to help them. So, we have to find avenues how we can bring it back to where it was again. I took up the job one and half months ago. I have got lots of plans for developing this industry and how to get the young ones into the tourism industry. To me the sky’s the limit in tourism. If I am given the opportunity to do it, I will definitely do it.

Q: What are the steps being taken to promote Sri Lanka as a tourist destination globally?

A: Actually, there is nothing to promote about Sri Lanka globally. Globally, Sri Lanka is being recognised and we are calling it Sri Lanka paradise. It has been recognised globally. Because of the situation we have been facing in the past few years, we are unable to bring back tourists. Obviously, as we saw in the past, we are in a political and economic crisis and we have been declared bankrupt as a country. So, we have a lot of work to do to make sure the world that the tourists come back globally. That is why I said Miss Tourism International is one of the five main pageants in the world. Bringing that alone to Sri Lanka, we are promoting Sri Lanka in 80 countries at once. That is quite global to me.

Q: The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was passed by a two thirds majority in Parliament but 49 MPs were absent at the voting and certain sections say this clearly showed the division with the SLPP. Your comments?

A: This is an Amendment brought by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the then Cabinet had approved it. Actually, this is something that they brought in with the independent commissions. They thought that they needed it back in the country so they brought it. I also voted for it because I was only against one thing. I don’t want the Executive power taken away. If it was included in 22nd Amendment, I wouldn’t have voted for it. I also told the President I voted for the 20th Amendment because of the Executive power and same with the 22nd Amendment. Especially, the issues that we are facing now, we have to have the executive presidency.

Obviously, 49 MPs were absent at the vote on the 22nd Amendment. Actually, some of them had gone abroad during the period and some of them probably never expected that the 22nd Amendment would be introduced at this time. Some didn’t vote and some abstained and walked out without voting.

Every individual has the right to do what they want. So, these 49 probably on their accord decided they are not going to vote for it. They might have their own reasons. We can see there are so many independent groups within the Government. At some point I don’t know whether they are going to get together when it comes to an election. 

Q: Following the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, a public dialogue has once again been created on MPs with dual citizenship. Would you like to comment?

A: Actually, I cannot say who are the dual nationals in Parliament unless the person comes out and says I am a dual nationality. If they are dual nationals, USA, Australia or whatever, they are not going to give their information on citizenship and dual nationality to a third party. Even Sri Lanka doesn’t obey the Data Protection Act but other countries do. Unless the person itself comes out and says I am a dual national and abolish my nationality either here or there, that is up to the individual to do. Anyway, they will have to find who the dual nationals are in Parliament. You can’t request the Speaker to do that.

Q: There is a lack of women representation in Parliament and other Local Government institutions. What steps have been taken to address this as women Parliamentarians?

A: The Women Parliamentarians Caucus in Parliament consists of twelve female MPs. We all are discussing the quota should be increased when it comes to Local Government, Provincial and Parliament as well. As a women Parliamentarian I would say women should be in politics but those who are coming into politics should be able to commit to that. They should understand what they are stepping into. They should be given the empowerment, knowledge, training and the courage to come into politics. In a male dominated system like Sri Lanka when it comes even on a stage or a meeting, how many women are allowed to speak? In that situation, if females want equal opportunity and rights, they have to behave and accept that equal position and that challenge as well.

Q: What led you to quit the SJB and extend your support to the Government?

A: I haven’t quit the SJB. I am a SJB Parliamentarian. The SJB is the party that belongs to me and my husband. So, nobody can throw me out of my party. I am a permanent member of the party. I am still a SJB Parliamentarian and I supported the 20th Amendment as the Executive power should be there. I want to be able to use this time given to me in Parliament. If I was to sit back and say I supported the Amendment but I am not going to do anything else, then I will be just sitting with the Opposition. I am not willing to waste five years of my life in such a manner. That is why I decided to support the Government and make sure that I can do something with my talents, capability and strength. That is exactly what I am doing right now.