Saving Sri Lanka’s tourist industry: Peace or posters?

July 18, 2007 (LBO) – Recently the JVP trade union in the hotel industry put up posters asking for prompt government action to address the crisis in the hotel industry, by ensuring the restoration of tourist arrivals and extending low-interest loans and related concessions to the hotel industry.

This was in stark contrast to the statements made by the Chair of the Sri Lanka Hoteliers Association, Hiran Cooray, on a BizFirst program on TV shortly after the trigger event of the psycho-bombing of Colombo by the LTTE airplanes.

Cooray pointed to the need to address the core problem of the war: unless the war is addressed, unless conditions are created for the return to their homes of the thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, there was little point in concessionary loans and delayed payment periods. The tourist industry would die. The only question was how to minimize the pain.

Cooray seemed to imply that a tourist industry could not exist in a country that is killing and displacing its own people. He talked about the need to safeguard the trained personnel if the industry were to lift its head again, years from now.

But most impressively, and to the apparent frustration of the interviewer, he didn’t follow the script of asking government for handouts; he repeatedly asserted that the war had to be stopped and the IDPs looked after. It’s more than just the tourist trade, he said, we need peace for all industries and all the people in this country.

Ravulai Kendai, or the art of having the cake and eating it

The JVP unions were fully behind the successful assault on the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the government that, through it, brought a respite from the war to this country.

Their members were enjoying employment and earnings generated by an industry running at full capacity in the wake of the CFA. At the same time they were instrumental in bringing down the Wickremesinghe government while it still enjoyed a Parliamentary majority.

In the subsequent two elections, the Sinhala voters (including these union members) voted for the forces of war, for the first time since 1994, naively believing that Karuna’s defection made it a winnable war. But they did not realize that their actions would lead to the demise of the tourist industry and destroy their livelihoods. They wanted the kenda (eating the cake), but they were unwilling to sacrifice the ravula (having the cake).

They voted for war. They got war. They got bombs and terror in Kebithigollawa, in Habarana, in Hikkaduwa and in Colombo. They got road blocks and check points.

They got 20 per cent inflation because the government printed money to pay for the war and to buy popularity. They got control over real estate in jungles they’ll never visit but no control over whether they’ll get to work on time or whether they’ll get home alive. They got the GA shot in his office in the liberated East.

Most Sri Lankans have no alternative but to live here. Tourists have choices.

Most people take vacations to de-stress; to feel happy and carefree. Being ordered to lie flat on your face in the dark in an airport that is attacking itself isn’t the equivalent of lying on the beach. Hearing about whitevanning with government blessing does not cause normal people to be happy. Reading about the latest carnage in the Daily Noose is not the best start to a carefree day in paradise.

Why come to Sri Lanka? Maldives, Mauritius, Senegal, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia beckon. Beauty, plus peace of mind. Tourists are abandoning Sri Lanka. Even our hardy Indian friends are choosing Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur over Bentota and Kandy.

On weekends, the locals descend like vultures to pick over the remains of the dying industry. On weekdays, the staff outnumber the guests. Vulture tourism supersedes eco tourism.

It’s not just the disappearance of the service-charge extras; or the loss of the ancillary employment for the village ladies who made the hoppers and for the musicians; it is now affecting the core of the industry, still represented by the JVP unions.

Finally, the realization has dawned on the JVP unions that their members are likely to be out of jobs shortly. The intelligent among them are beginning to realize that they will not be able to feed their families as a result of the war; a war that we chose to start by abandoning the CFA.

And the reaction is not to get on the streets asking the government to return to the path of peace; it is to paste posters asking the government to intervene to save the tourist industry and their jobs.

How can this be done when we have a government that, for the first time since 1994, is going for a purely military solution, originally for three years, but now with no timetable? Can tourists be ordered to visit a country of war, abductions and executions of humanitarian workers?

“Come to Sri Lanka and enjoy yourself or else… You can’t have a civilized drink the entire week during which we celebrate our religious festivals, but enjoy yourself anyway. We insist. Haven’t you heard of the white vans that come for the people who don’t do what they are told?”

Perhaps they think that governments can compel tourists to visit, like they believed that the government could unplug the economy from the world economy. Or perhaps they believe that their salaries can be paid by government. All that is missing is a call to nationalize the hotels to assure employment! Why not get the Rajapaksa SLFP to do to Royal Palms what the Bandaranaike SLFP of the 1970s did to the Buhari Hotel?

Naiveté not limited to the unions

It is too easy to ridicule the silly posters of the JVP unions. What is hard is how to address the failures to appreciate the consequences of the choices we make, which is not in any way limited to the JVP unions.

The graduates who protest outside various government buildings demanding government jobs fail to understand that 20 per cent inflation is a necessary consequence of the money printing that has to occur if the fluff jobs they want are created. The farmers who favor subsidized urea don’t realize that the un
funded subsidies will drive up the prices of all other agricultural inputs.

But the truly sad fact is that the naiveté extends to the leadership of the business community too. Today, the business community’s silence is deafening, contrary to 2001 when, under the courageous leadership of the likes of Chandra Jayaratne, Lalith Kotelawala and Neela Marikkar, the private sector made it clear to government and society as a whole that peace was priority one.

Get the heads down, do the deals that can be done, ask for a handout or two and mind your own business seems to be the governing philosophy. Pretend that the war doesn’t exist; cancel capital investments and move as much of your business as possible out to India or the Maldives. Grumble quietly at the club, but never in public.

The brave, lone, public voice of the Chairman of the Hoteliers’ Association is an exception.

Unfortunate the land in which merely stating the facts appears an act of bravery.