A great accolade | Daily News

A great accolade

Sri Lanka Tourism is on a roll these days, buoyed by positive reviews in many major publications around the world. The latest to jump on the bandwagon is the highly respected travel ‘bible’ Lonely Planet, which has selected Sri Lanka as the top destination to visit in 2019, pushing Germany and Zimbabwe into second and third place. This is not the first time that the prestigious Australia-based travel publisher has bestowed this honour on Sri Lanka – the country topped the list for 2013-2014 as well.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who made a special statement on the naming of Sri Lanka as the top destination to visit in 2019 said this achievement should be a starting point to go to a higher level in tourism.“Let us make this award, for us, a starting point to go to a higher level of tourism,” he said.

Lonely Planet, which has been publishing a best-selling guidebook on Sri Lanka for decades, cited better transport links, new hotels and a growing number of activities as the reason the South Asian island was chosen for the top spot in its annual “Best in Travel” Awards.

“Already notable to intrepid travellers for its mix of religions and cultures, its timeless temples, its rich and accessible wildlife, its growing surf scene and its people who defy all odds by their welcome and friendliness after decades of civil conflict, this is a country revived,” says Lonely Planet author Ethan Gelber in the Best in Travel 2019 book published this week.

This is just the type of endorsement that Sri Lanka needs to bolster its tourism industry. Tourist visits to Sri Lanka have increased dramatically since the end of the 30-year conflict, from 447,890 in 2009 to an all time high of 2.1 million last year, a figure the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority hopes to double by 2020.

Renovations made to the rail system have opened up much of the North for the first time since 1990 – an area previously considered too dangerous for tourists. The scenic rail routes in Sri Lanka are now thought to be some of the best in the world. Expressways are being built to cover much of the island and the number of domestic flight routes has increased. For example, it is now possible to fly from Colombo to Batticaloa in just 45 minutes, as opposed to 4-5 hours by road. We do need more affordable scheduled domestic flights, now that all domestic airports are being upgraded to international standards.

There has also been a huge investment in new visitor accommodation from home stays to high-end eco retreats. Major international hotel chains, including Shangri-La, Mövenpick, Sheraton, Next, Radisson SAS, Grand Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, Hilton, JW Marriott, Inter-Continental and ITC have either opened or are opening brand new properties. Sri Lanka needs more hotel rooms to accommodate four million tourists as envisaged in the short term.

The tourism industry must also work with the airline industry to address the impending shortage of seats into Colombo. The good news is that many new airlines are coming in to Colombo from this month including Aeroflot (Russia), SWISS/Edelweiss (Switzerland), Thomas Cook (UK), Thai Air Asia (Thailand), Vistara (India), Lion Air (Indonesia) and Biman (Bangladesh). Many existing airlines have also increased flights and capacity. But we need more airlines to come in to handle the extra traffic.

However, Sri Lanka must also be on guard against over-tourism. City fathers in destinations such as Venice, literally flooded with tourists, are wondering how to protect their treasures in the face of the tourist onslaught. Some countries have been forced to take drastic measures – one example comes from the Philippines which is opening its resort island Boracay to holidaymakers today after a six-month clean-up aimed at repairing the damage inflicted by years of unrestrained mass tourism.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the island to be shuttered in April to fortify weak infrastructure and crack down on the rampant overdevelopment that had left it a “cesspool”. When the doors are re-opened, Boracay will have fewer hotels and restaurants, a cap on the number of visitors and anti-beach boozing rules aimed at taming its reputation for partying hard. Indeed, sustainable tourism is a major challenge that Sri Lanka must face in order to ensure that its attractions are preserved intact for posterity.

Despite the priority given to inbound tourism, it would be naïve to neglect local tourists, who kept the industry going during some of its darkest chapters in recent memory. Some tourist resorts are known to practice a form of apartheid against even well-heeled local tourists. Any hotels which engage in such practices should be named and shamed and their status should be downgraded. There should be more facilities for domestic tourists. Similarly, there should be a bigger emphasis on tourists from the SAARC region.

At a time when the Rupee is under pressure, the tourism industry which is a huge foreign exchange earner can be a major economic lifeline. The industry should be given all necessary incentives and concessions to realise its short-term and long-term goals.


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