Tourism industry targets US $ 4-5 billion by year’s end - Diana Gamage | Sunday Observer

Tourism industry targets US $ 4-5 billion by year’s end - Diana Gamage

14 May, 2023

State Minister of Tourism Diana Gamage said the tourism industry is back on track compared to 2019, 2020 and 2021. The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that last month alone tourism had grown by 67 percent adding that US$ 350 million income had been earned by the industry during the past four months. The tourism sector has improved a great deal showing a significant increase in its income too. The State Minister said hopefully there will be two million tourists by the end of the year and they are targeting an income of nearly US$ 4 to 5 billion.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: Tourism faced three setbacks-Easter Sunday attacks, Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. But is tourism finally back on track?

A: It is absolutely back on track when you compare it to 2019, 2020 and 2021. Only last month alone, tourism had grown by 67 percent. During the last four months we had 441,000 tourists. There has been an increase in income as well. The income has been nearly US$ 350 million during this period. I think a huge amount of money has been earned from the tourism industry. So, the sector has developed quite a lot.

Q: What are the source markets that have shown the biggest improvements? Are you confident of getting two million tourists from India by year end?

A: We are trying our best to make sure that at least if we can get two million tourists by the end of this year, then definitely we are looking at nearly a US$ 4 to 5 billion income. If you compare it to 2018 where there were 1.9 million tourists visiting Sri Lanka our income was nearly US$ 4.7 billion. If we can get 2 million tourists, that would be a big achievement and I am working towards it. There are lots of other plans to attract tourists. Hopefully, we will have two million tourists and then we are looking at quite a big income by the end of the year.

Q: Sri Lanka tourism recently held road shows in several countries. What is the outcome?

A: I haven’t been to any of those road shows. It was the Cabinet Minister who attended those road shows. There has been quite a good response. That is why we have had an increase in tourists visiting Sri Lanka.

Q: Are you working to revive flights to Colombo by certain airlines which were stopped during the Covid-19 period?

A: Absolutely, that is a must. At the moment, SriLankan Airlines has reduced the number of its flights. A few have been grounded. SriLankan Airlines either has to buy or at least hire another 25 aircraft. At present there are so many destinations especially when you look at China, where we had a huge traffic to Sri Lanka but unfortunately we don’t have a flight coming from China at present.

So, we need to have flights to cover these sectors. We need to go ahead and I am fully in support of privatising SriLankan Airlines. This is a burden to the Government and when you give it to the private sector, handling, quality, competence, efficiency and the income will be very much better. Then you are taking out a huge burden from the Government.

We need at least 25 aircraft. We have to hire or purchase it. At present, SriLankan Airlines is running at a huge loss and it is very difficult for us to purchase aircrafts. At least, we have to look to renting aircrafts and covering up the sectors that we have traffic.

For instance, we have over 300,000 Sri Lankans working in Italy. There are direct flights from Italy to Maldives but they don’t fly to Sri Lanka. I have been talking to the Italian Ambassador regarding this issue and she has been saying the same thing. I am trying to work on getting back Italian flights to Sri Lanka.

We should be able to give landing rights to these charter flight companies. We have to have a company that will have charter landing rights which can handle these things. That is not in place either. At the moment, everything is under SriLankan Airlines. Hence, we have to suffer.

Q: You proposed several controversial proposals such as nightlife and extending liquor serving hours to improve tourism. What is the basis for these proposals?

A: If you go out at 10 p.m. in the night, you will see the basis of it. Colombo is a dead city after 10 or 10.30 p.m. There is no place for anyone to go out and buy some food, or get some liquor. We have to understand whether we like it or not in every country, it is through the excise taxes that makes a lot of income.

Sri Lanka is also the same. At the moment, we are running at a 40 percent loss when it comes to the excise tax because of this liquor issue. If the bars are closed at 11.00 p.m. it will allow people to enjoy eating, drinking and the nightlife. So, we have to provide these facilities. There is no point in us going and promoting Sri Lanka in other countries where a tourist would say “Why should I come to your country when you are shut at 10.30 p.m. and I have nowhere to go. I would rather go to Bangkok, Singapore, Malaysia or somewhere where there is a 24- hour service.” That is exactly what Sri Lanka needs.

We cannot bring rules and say that we have to shut at 11.00 p.m. I would like to know from anyone who has brought these rules and regulations to give me an explanation as to why we have to close at 11.00 p.m. Because there is no reason for a tourist destination like Sri Lanka to shut at 11.00 p.m.

Q: What are the steps being done to stop harassment of tourists by touts, drivers and so on?

A: These things have to be brought under rules and regulations. We have to introduce a regulatory system. We cannot allow everybody to become a tour guide. There should be some sort of qualifications, registration, regulations and a regulatory body. Actually, we control these people.

We give them the licences, passes and training. Unfortunately, anyone who has a car can say I am a tour guide. Obviously, tourists also tend to get into three wheelers, probably it is cheaper and quicker. Some of the incidents are very isolated where you find tourists being harassed by three wheel drivers, cab drivers and obviously on the streets sometimes.

These a kind of isolated situations but it cannot happen because safety is first. When someone visits a country, they should feel safe and secure. That is something we have to provide for the tourists when they are here. That should be done by the Tourist Police and the regulatory body which comes under the Ministry.

Q: With much more attractions than countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, do you think our people’s mentality has become a hindrance to attract more tourists to Sri Lanka?

A: Definitely. The way the people think, we have got a tribal mentality. Still we have not been able to get out of this tribal mentality. I find that is the reason the bars are closed at 11.00 p.m. We have got this tribal mentality for decades in this country. It is very easy to solve these things. The people’s mentality has caused a lot of damage to the country.

The people are talking about Facebook, Instagram and Youtube but their mentality hasn’t developed to change things in the country. Actually, this system change is not what they talk about, such as giving everything for nothing. They expect the Government to give education, free health and not to impose taxes. That is the mentality they have but they don’t want to change anything. As a Government, people and the representatives of the people, we should be able to change it all.

Q: What is the progress with regard to the steps taken to promote Sri Lanka as a tourist destination globally?

A: We are working on a lot of projects. I am planning to have a kind of carnival such as Notting Hill, Trinidad and Rio Carnivals. There are so many countries which have these carnivals and there are lots of tourists who go to those countries for a couple of days just to enjoy the carnival.

I am planning to do the same thing in Sri Lanka and this will be held on a yearly basis. We should also open up facilities such as shopping malls and bringing in branded goods. The people come to this country as they have money but they have nowhere to spend it. Some people like to go to Singapore to buy branded goods. Our own people go to Singapore and Dubai to buy branded belts, handbags and wristwatches.

We don’t have that facility in Sri Lanka. We should be able to bring these franchises into the country and open more shopping malls until long hours of the night. This is the change we need in tourism.

Q: What led you to cross over to the Government and extend your support?

A: You cannot bat by sitting in the audience. If you want to bat and show your performance you have to get on to the pitch. That is what I did. Even though I was in the Opposition, I supported the 20th Amendment. That is why I joined the Government. Up to date, I think I was right according to my conscience. I am of the view that the executive power should be there in this type of country. Don’t forget we had a 30-year-war in the country and we are still having issues.

So, in a place like that the Executive is a must. That is exactly why I voted for the 20th Amendment. When I voted for the 20th Amendment, it was said that I am supporting the Government. If I am supporting it, I have to do it wholeheartedly. I cannot say I only supported the 20th Amendment. So, I went ahead and I am fully supporting the Government. I supported former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well but it was a failure in the end. Then President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over. Now I am supporting him as he is the President. We should be able to support whoever is willing to rebuild this country. That is exactly what I am doing.

Q: A lot of people are under the impression that the country is recovering from the economic crisis. Do you agree?

A: It is absolutely recovering. If you look at last year, we had an ‘Aragalaya’ on the streets. There were nearly 10 hours of power cuts daily.

There was no fuel and gas and there were long queues. We don’t have such issues now and fuel and gas is available without any queues. At present, fuel is given under a QR system and fuel quota has also been increase. We didn’t celebrate Vesak for nearly four years. This year’s Vesak festival was held everywhere and over 7,000 dansalas were held. This is the difference and the change. We also managed to get the IMF credit facility.

The IMF loan is just a green light that anyone can come and invest their money in Sri Lanka with trust. We should be able to put the money given by the IMF in the right place and make sure we find investors and bring other banks into the country. So, there is a big difference. Definitely, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has performed well.

Q: Do you think the Samagi Jana Balawegya (SJB) is in a position to win a future election?

A: It is in an absolute mess. It is very unfortunate to me as the SJB is my party. At present, it is in an absolute mess because there is no proper leadership. I feel very sorry for Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa because he himself doesn’t know what he is talking about.

There are so many splits within the party. The people are going their own way and they have their own agendas. I think it has already split into five different sections. There are so many SJB MPs who are willing to cross over to the Government. I have also filed a case in the District Court. When the court ruling is given, we would be able to see where the party will be.

Q: Concerns have been raised on your dual citizenship and that you are unqualified to serve as a Member of Parliament due to your British citizenship. Would you like to comment?

A: I don’t even give it a consideration. You could see what happened at the Magistrate’s Court. All the SJB lawyers who were present in court were hiding when the judgement was given. I am not a dual citizen and I have never taken up dual citizenship. I am a Sri Lankan citizen. I am going to carry on the same way. I don’t care what they do. They can carry on with court cases and do what they want. Everybody is innocent until proven guilty by the law. So, let them go ahead and it doesn’t bother me.