- Prominent industry figures and bodies slam proposed Act
- Claim stakeholder input ignored, despite Tourism Minister saying it was ‘vital’
- Warn against excessive powers being granted to industry regulator
By Shahaen Vishak
A group of high-level tourism industry figures representing prominent industry associations yesterday (10) slammed the proposed Tourism Act, and charged that instead of changing the Act, it would be better if current Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando was replaced instead.
At a meeting that included representatives from The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tourism Operators (SLAITO), Association for Small and Medium Enterprises in Tourism (ASMET), Sri Lanka Association of Professional Conference, Exhibition, and Event Organisers (SLAPCEO), and Travel Agents Association of Sri Lanka (TAASL), such as Hiran Cooray, Thilak Weerasinghe, M. Shanthikumar, Mahen Kariyawasam, Nilmin Nanayakkara, Nalin Jayasundara, Imran Hassan, Nishad Wijetunga, and Anjeline Ondaatje, those present unanimously agreed that Chairperson Kimarli Fernando had not proven co-operative over the last two years of her tenure, and that her removal would serve the industry better than the implementation of a new Tourism Act.
They also noted that claims that the new Act was developed in consultation with industry stakeholder input are false, as the five mentioned associations had worked together to develop a joint proposal that was handed over to the Tourism Ministry on 12 August 2021, but had received no response, while none of these proposals had been included in the current draft of the Act.
Noting that one of the key justifications for the new Act was the inclusion of small and medium enterprise (SME) stakeholders on the Board of the tourism authority, Jetwing Symphony Chairman Hiran Cooray explained: “The garment industry too has industry bodies, but these do not include the minor suppliers, like button makers; the bodies comprise the operators who have invested in the industry and work on bringing business into the country. Similarly, the members of the current Boards are experienced operators who have invested money and effort into developing this industry, and who can share their knowledge towards improving the industry. We agree that we should recognise the small associations and grant them financial assistance, but they are being used here to split the industry.”
The associations further charged that the new Act, which aims to unify the three main industry bodies, namely the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), and the Sri Lanka Convention Bureau (SLCB), would grant excessive powers to the regulator and certain government officials, paving way for the funds and state lands managed by the tourism bodies to be misappropriated in the future.
While pointing out that industry revenues had been severely affected in the past few years by the Covid-19 pandemic, NKAR Travels and Tours Managing Director Nilmin Nanayakkara noted: “Around Rs. 5-6 billion is collected by the Tourism Development Levy in a good year. With the private sector being taken out, different people may enter to do what they want with the money. We are allowing space for people to misuse these funds.”
Another of the SLTDA’s justifications for the new Act was that it would streamline the decision-making process in implementing strategies such as promotional campaigns. However, Mercantile Investments and Finance Executive Director and Tangerine Group Managing Director Angeline Ondaatje pointed out: “Four of us were on the Board of the SLTPB. At our first board meeting, we approved the implementation of a promotional campaign, but it took over six months before this was implemented by the SLTPB.”
The associations thus noted that their representation on the boards of the tourism authorities was as non-executive members, and that they were not responsible for the non-implementation of projects. They further stated that the authorities had been neglectful of their duties, pointing out for instance that despite a considerable volume of tourists arriving in Sri Lanka from emerging markets such as Kazakhstan, the SLTPB had failed to capitalise on this with a promotional campaign in those countries.
They further pointed to how hotel operators were facing compounded issues, where they had to operate generators to ensure uninterrupted services during the nationwide power cuts, but could not refill the generators with the fuel required, as filling stations refused to fill barrels with petrol or diesel. It is, they charged, the SLTDA’s responsibility to intervene and handle matters in such scenarios.
It is in this context, they stated, that the industry cannot waste time and effort in changing the Tourism Act entirely, as these efforts would be better redirected towards helping industry operators to weather the ongoing crises. As Nanayakkara pointed out: “This issue of the new Act has divided the industry at a time when it needs to work together. There has never been this much division, even though we have faced worse crises in the past.”