The tourism industry received a sledgehammer blow after the Easter Sunday massacre by Islamist terrorists when a considerable number of innocent Catholics at morning mass perished, along with nearly 50 foreign tourists in two five-star hotels. Following this tragic incident, the tourism industry has become a burning issue for the Government, as their fervent hope of expecting millions of tourists by 2020, was dashed.
The City Hoteliers Association confirmed about hotel occupancies coming crashing down immediately. Rubbing salt to the wound, even locals do not seem to patronise hotels purely because of the Government’s inability to build public confidence; instead politicians and responsible government officials seem to pass the buck to each other. The irony is worse when after three weeks of such a tragic incident, the political hierarchy appear to be still at loggerheads and blaming each other rather than building public confidence. One begins to wonder whether this whole unfortunate saga has turned into a political game versus national security?
In an attempt to find ways and means of resurrecting the ‘sudden death’of the tourism industry, the Government has come up with a financial package for the hotel industry by investing Rs.454 million on a Global campaign. Issuance of various relief packages covering (only) registered hotels and introductions of a one-year moratorium with subsidised loans on working capitals, VAT reduced to 5% and offering hefty discounts on travel insurance, to woo back foreigners who left Sri Lanka with indelible memories are commendable, but the fate of numerous unregistered hotels and motels of various kind, who have had to lay off hundreds of staff after the Easter Sunday attack, remains to be solved. In short, tourism has dried up completely, and in particular those whose livelihood depends on a day-day-basis such as tourist guides, tour drivers etc.
Just prior to the Easter Sunday tragedy, the Government came up with another unwise proposal of granting gratis visas to 39 selected countries and was ready to execute the programme from 1 May 2019. This was viewed by many as a discriminative manoeuvre, as much as a massive foreign exchange drain, backed by the argument that on the assumption of Sri Lanka expected one million visitors from those selected 39 countries, the revenue loss would have been approx. $30,000,000 ($30 million) on the basis that each foreigner, would otherwise have had to pay $30 (thirty dollars) per passport as visa fee.
These facts were highlighted in this column on 12th April 2019 under the caption, ‘Gratis Visas – solution for tourism’. Considering the positive response received from both local and international readership, it is prudent for the Government to do away with ‘the waving of gratis visa magic wand’,of free visas, sftre the fear-provoking experience by the national and international communities on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.
Response from Netherlands
Jan Verbiest’s feedback was apt, thus needs highlighting as a foreigner’s contribution. Jan Verbiest lives in the North of the Netherlands and has been a regular visitor to Sri Lanka – 37 times in the past 32 years. Therefore, his experience needs to be considered, as seen from a foreign eye! He is against the new proposed scheme of granting free visas to any country, and says ‘it has never been a problem’ for him to pay $30 as visa fee.
Going back on the history of ‘airport visa fee,’ he states that all visitors had to pay an airport tax at the departure lounge at the Bandaranaike International Airport. His idea would be that the Minister of Tourism, instead of allowing free visas to selected countries, ought to have taken steps to extend the period of stay for a visitor to remain in Sri Lanka from three to 6 months.
His defends his comments by stating that most Western pensioners do visit Sri Lanka to avoid the cold weather during winter in the West. Consequently, they would like to spend at least three to six months leisurely in Sri Lanka! The problem with the present procedure, from a visitor’s point of view, is that tourists’ movements are restricted having to extend their visa after the expiry of 30 days, and having to travel all the way to Battaramulla, from wherever they are, and waste a full day in attending to such a trivial task!For a tourist, time is precious and the wastage of a day might clash with pre-arranged time tables, he emphasises!
He asserts that no one should compare pensioners with young or other types of tourists who travel the world with holdalls and looking out for cheaper accommodation. “Pensioners are a different kettle of fish, and they receive good pensions! Usually they do not wish to be confined to a tiny, cheap guest house or a hotel room and to be restricted to ‘hotel’ time tables, but rather wish to be free utilising every moment of their adventure. On the other hand, once visitors befriend local landlords, they are certain to return again on an annual basis! Unlike tourists on package deals, pensioners’ contribution to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is far greater”, he asserts confidently.
On the negative aspect, he detests the charges for foreigners and locals on entrance tickets to various historical and environmental sites, such as Sigiriya and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. “This kind of charging system does not appeal to many foreign tourists or even Sri Lankans, who are on foreign passports; these act as a deterrent to visit these places again! Don’t such rates appear to be discriminative – against the white skin”? he argues.
On hotel rates, his suggestion is to leave rates in the hands of individual hotel manager or owner to play on the market forces to avoid high rates in 3 to 4-star hotels; and especially in the off-peak season when occupancy rates are low .
Jan Verbiest, lives in AMELAND, a small town in Frisian Wadden Islands in the North of the Netherlands, 27 km long and two to three km wide. This small town is able to accommodate 60,000 guests in hotels, guesthouses, luxury bungalows, apartments and campsites with an annual tourist arrival figure of 700,000. Here the Government lets hotel owners to decide on their rates.
Jan Verbiest has been a Municipal Councillor of AMELAND for 24 years. During his tenure, he was responsible for energising the tourism industry along with the construction of a solar park with 24,000 panels. He has rendered yeoman service to the local community over the decades that has been recognised by The King of Netherlands( King Willem Alexander of Orange) who conferred on him the Membership of the House of Orange in 2013, which is akin to a Knighthood.
Over the past 32 years, during his visits to Sri Lanka, devoting his energy to charity work in the Gampaha District, he has been instrumental in building houses in Mehipalagoda, Yakkala as the President of a Foundation, to help the poor. In addition, 80 poor families have benefitted in their children’s education; he has sponsored a child in his education, up to University level and beyond, where financial responsibility is arranged through a Sri Lankan representative in Gampaha. He also founded a home for disabled (mostly children affected by Downs Syndrome) in Ambanpitya, Kegalle. In January 2019, he visited Sri Lanka to donate an electric wheelchair to a woman in the ‘Home for the disabled, who is a quadriplegic and had to depend on another inmate who was in turn affected by Downs Syndrome.
Jan Verbiest was a former Lifeboat crew member and skipper of a small lifeboat team in The Netherlands. He organised four used lifeboats from the Dutch Lifeboat Organisation, KNRM,to donate four ‘Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIB) to CINEC (Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College). In 2004 and 2005 he visited Sri Lanka personally to hand over the four RIBs to Members of Sea Rescue Sri Lanka. These are the boats that are being currently operated in flood areas in Sri Lanka ; these vessels are also picked as ‘standby boats’, which are put to use during water sports and swimming events.
Additionally, Jan Verbiest has trained a group of Sri Lankan volunteers, as crew members, from a CINEC site in Kalutara. He parts with his knowledge and experience, which he has gained as a Freelance Instructor in Maritime training in Rotterdam, to Sri Lankans as an external adviser to CINEC Sea Rescue in Sri Lanka currently.
Jan Verbiest expresses strong sentiments about Sri Lanka. Calling it one of the most beautiful countries in the world and he hopes it will remain so in the future too! ‘With the City of Colombo and the skyline changing rapidly’, his only warning signal to the Sri Lankan Government is ‘to be aware that Sri Lanka will not change to a Chinese province in the future’!
Pic.credit: Jan Verbiest & Google pics