Oct 09, 2012 (LBO) Some colleagues who had come to Sri Lanka at my invitation for a business meeting had flights out Sunday late evening. My first thought was to take them around Colombo on the free day to kill time before they left for the airport around 5 PM. Then someone asked why not Galle?
Prior to the expressway being completed, the question would not have been asked. But now, Galle is 1.5 hours away from Colombo.
So at 8 AM we arrived at the Closenberg, a favorite place in Galle. Great introduction to the town, nicely positioned between the expressway ramp and the town itself.
The location is heavenly, but the hotel itself is less so. Benign neglect and just managing with essential repairs allowed the tourist trade to survive the war. But this is 2012, three years after. Surely it is time to bring in the architects, tear down some of the ugly additions, and bring the hotel up to the quality of the location.
Service quality was poor. Coffee is bad. Tea is treated like bad coffee, kept on an electric warmer. Not freshly made. Surely, it’s not too much to ask for a nice hot water dispenser and good-quality tea bags (I’m not asking for silver tea service, just drinkable tea).
Bottomline: private ownership does not solve all. The easy route is to bash government ownership and management. But I have also seen what private owners who took over from the government have done to beautiful locations and historic rest houses.
I am still seething over the architectural atrocities committed at the Peradeniya Rest House. I am all for private ownership and management of tourist establishments, meant for both domestic and foreign visitors. But there is a desperate need for setting and enforcing standards so that damage from philistines can be minimized.
Next stop was the Galle Fort.
The Fort itself was a public “investment” by the Dutch and its upkeep has been the responsibility of successive government authorities. The roads have been repaved; the garbage is regularly cleared; public toilets and drinking water are announced at the Ramparts. More can be done, but significant improvements have been made over the past decade.
Private investment is playing its part as evidenced by the numerous boutique hotels and the increasing number of elegant shops. But private enterprise is not limited to the big boys dealing in millions. Little places like Anura’s Pizza on Lighthouse Street are upping their standards, and investing in equipment and improved dcor as well.
More than that, the expanding pie is changing attitudes. A big tour bus was coming down Church Street, where the parking is still not optimally organized (hint to the authorities: getting people to park on one side of a street instead of on both sides can help). I was gratified to see parked three-wheelers being voluntarily moved around to make room for the tour bus. The live-and-let-liveprinciple intrinsic to city living (the words civilization and city share the same root)is kicking in, helped by the knowledge that the prosperity of the community depends on the buses that bring monied tourists into the Fort.
What impressed me most were not the snazzy new shops that had come up since my last visit in January, but what had been achieved with the Maritime Museum. It was open on Sunday, unlike the tightly shuttered Galle National Museum.
Thought had been given to the flow of visitor traffic; the introductory video was attractive for more reasons than the air conditioning in the room where it was shown. And the collection was exquisite: the Cripps Road inscription left behind by the Zheng He fleet in the 15th Century; the Nestorian Cross from Anuradhapura, and the beautiful statues washed up by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The staff were a little lackadaisical (uniforms would be nice); inadequate attention had been paid to the readability of some of the descriptions; the bookshop in the basement could be more professional; and the humidity in the converted warehouse was off the charts. Little and big things that can be improved over time.But all that was overridden by the intelligence and commitment to the causes of archeology and country evidenced by the displayed items. Admiring the Nestorian Cross, my thoughts went to how much trouble would have been taken to move it from the previous location.
Overall, the Galle Fort exemplifies the synergies that emerge when public and private actors play their appropriate roles.
Without the expressway, Galle would not be a day trip. Without the Central Cultural Fund (working outside the constrictions of a government department), the Maritime Museum could not be as attractive. Without the boutique hotels and the Galle Literary Festival that burnished the “brand” of the Galle Fort, it would not be the hot tourist destination it has become. Without the brand attracting the guidebook writers, people’s places like Anura’s Pizza would not be making money. Without the tourists, domestic and foreign, the Maritime Museum would not be sustainable, and so on. This was a key message I was trying to get across in my recent Sinhala Book, ApataGalapenaArtikaKramaveda. When we speak in favor of the private sector, we do not say that government has no role.
It is that today in our country government has over-extended itself. It is doing things best done by the private sector, such as running airlines, badly. The over-extension has also caused it to do poorly on things that are solely the province of government, such as law and order, preserving cultural heritage and primary education. Tough to spend money on museums when the airline has hemorrhaged 19 billion rupes (150 million US dollars) in one year.
Fixing government requires refocusing on priorities and letting the private sector do what it’s good at. Then we all win. The rejuvenated Galle Fort is a good example.
Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.