Online visas could hurt tourism

(June 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The tourism industry in Sri Lanka is a never-ending saga of problems being piled over problems without an all-encompassing solution in sight.

Just look at the issues the industry has faced since the ethnic struggle broke out in 1983:
  • Struggle to promote tourism in a war-affected country
  • Cut-throat competition particularly among city hotels to get a share of the market and (forget profit) even break-even
  • Inability to enforce a minimum pricing mechanism due to under-cutting
  • The Tsunami and the struggle to recover
  • Conflicts and disagreements between the late Minister Anura Bandaranaike and then Sri Lanka Tourist Board Chairman Udaya Nanayakkara which delayed implementation of the new Tourism Act
  • End of the war but no promotional budget as funds are channeled to infrastructure and product development
  • Splash in the local media about Visit Sri Lanka Year 2011 but little or no allocation of funds to promote the event overseas
  • No attractive monthly events that could entice tourists to visit the country during 2011. Much of the increase in arrivals has been through word-of-mouth and private sector industry promotion
  • Discontinuing PR agencies in vital western markets, in one case just before a major trade fair was taking place
  • Nonsensical billboard outside the Sri Lanka Tourism head office which highlights events like management seminars that has no connection even for MICE travellers
  • Removal of the billboard
  • And now the removal of the Visa On Arrival (VOA) crisis

At a time when ‘all hands (should be) on desk’ – where every effort from the public and private sectors must be geared towards one goal - moving tourism to a much higher level as Sri Lanka has a lot of catching up to do -, the authorities are working at cross purposes.

Consider this absurdity: Sri Lanka launches Visit Sri Lanka Year 2011with elaborate plans to increase the arrival numbers. However there is no promotional budget, officials don’t attend vital trade fairs with representation by a ‘Minister’ and now restrictions are placed on arrivals by the removal of the VOA. Are we attracting tourists or ‘gently’ turning them away to other competitive holiday spots? Are the majority of travellers ‘undesirables’ to put them through an online process? Quite a few from the West are spur-of-the-moment travellers. Do we want to turn them away? How stupid can one get with this kind of unplanned scheme without taking into consideration market demands?

For every two steps the industry moves forward on the tourism trail, the authorities are taking four steps backwards!

The positive role of the industry must be acknowledged for braving all the odds over the war years and bringing in the numbers, even now notwithstanding the visa issue. Some companies are even hiring their own PR agencies when such activity should be the role of Sri Lanka Tourism using Cess money contributed by the industry.

What is even more ridiculous is that the new online visa scheme is being introduced in September with the onset of the Winter (September-April) season when Sri Lankan hotels fill up with Western travellers. Last year the Winter season drew more than 400,000 visitors out of a total 655,000!

Sri Lanka is still not a destination that gets all-year traffic, spread out equally. The Indians are increasing their numbers and have beaten UK, once the biggest source market, to second place. Nevertheless in terms of yields, UK with lesser numbers than Indian visitors is still higher as Britons and other Westerners stay for a minimum two weeks compared to 3-5 days by Indians or the Chinese.

We are thus imposing travel restrictions at a time when the ‘visiting Sri Lanka’ process needs to be more relaxed. The rationale behind the online visa scheme is because Sri Lankans face stringent visa procedures to enter all other countries, except Singapore and the Maldives, whereas the VOA is available to many who visit this country. So it’s a tit-for-tat policy that we are following – to hell with the markets and the negative impact it would have on tourism. Until recently there wasn’t even a discussion between the industry and the implementing authorities.

Some encouraging news however is that the VOA will continue even as the online visa scheme comes into effect in September. However the scheme should have never even been thought of during Visit Sri Lanka Year 2011!

Here is a reality check! Sri Lanka desperately needs to lift the tourism numbers to make up for lost time, raise revenues, foreign exchange earnings and increase jobs.

Thus facilitating an easy visa process is what is needed; not to make it more difficult. Taking the tit-for-tat argument, Sri Lanka is not a powerful economic power (unlike India or China for example) to dictate terms to the West and demand equal treatment. Yes, Sri Lankans have difficulties in visiting any country in the West. But that’s because of the refugee issue – both for political and economic reasons - from the 1980s onwards. That situation has turned into an unofficial Western campaign against Sri Lanka for political reasons and visas for even the genuine traveller is often turned down, using the excuse of suspicion over prospective refugee seekers.

This however is a bitter pill Sri Lankans have to swallow because it (refugee-seeking) is of our own creation. The authorities must be practical. While the West or tourism-promoting countries like Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand can do without visitors from Sri Lanka, this country needs (rather desperately) foreign visitors for its economic growth.

It’s not too late to postpone the scheme for next year with more discussion with the industry. It is foolhardy on the part of the authorities, who one must assume want more foreigners to visit the country, to implement a scheme that is a total contradiction of that policy.

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