By July this year, China became the top tourism generating market for Sri Lanka, sending 25,120 visitors to the country that month relegating India to second place. Chinese visitor figures to the country were also up by over 65 percent from a year earlier. This influx of Chinese tourists however, is also creating issues for the local travel industry, with Chinese nationals taking advantage of legal loopholes and in some cases, blatantly disregarding the country’s immigration laws to set up their own businesses or work as interpreters and tour guides.

According to local Chinese speaking tourist guides, the illegal activities of the Chinese nationals have now expanded where some have started operating illegal travel companies, gem shops and guest houses.

Last week, The Nation reported how Chinese nationals were illegally working in the country as tourist guides, pushing local Chinese speaking guides out of employment. Local Chinese speaking guides told this newspaper that they had written to authorities notifying them of the extent of the problem, but that they had not received a favorable response.

Jolted into action
However, subsequent to the media exposure, authorities on August 25 (Tuesday) convened a meeting at Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office in Colombo to discuss the issue. Representatives of tourist guides, tourism officials including those from the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), the Tourist Police as well as representatives of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) were present at the discussion.

When contacted, Director General of SLTDA, Malraj Kiriella said that at the meeting, officials acknowledged there were several issues that needed to be dealt with. “However, this is not a problem that we can tackle by ourselves. There needs to be cooperation between different government entities, including the Department of Immigration and Emigration to address this issue. We will be working with all stakeholders to bring about a solution,” he said.

Pushed out of business
According to local Chinese speaking tourist guides, the illegal activities of the Chinese nationals have now expanded where some have started operating illegal travel companies, gem shops and guest houses. “Chinese Language guiding was earlier done by Sri Lankans who have studied in China and Kelaniya and Sabaragamuwa Chinese Language graduates. But now some have lost their jobs as Travel companies recruit Chinese individuals who work for a lower salary,” a local Chinese speaking tourist guide said. It has also been revealed that the majority of Chinese nationals working as tourist guides have arrived in the country for other purposes. “Chinese nationals working in road construction projects, university students on exchange programs and even prostitutes are currently illegally working as tourist guides for Chinese tourist groups,” said Padmapriya, a local Chinese speaking tour guide who has been in the industry for several years.

He further alleged that the income of those doing other jobs in the tourism sector, such as those of bell boys, waiters in hotels and safari jeep and tourist coach drivers had also decreased because the illegal Chinese guides discouraged Chinese guests from giving tips. “Furthermore, as these guides aren’t properly trained or educated about the culture and history of Sri Lanka, they tend to provide false information about the country.”

Padmapriya said according to Chinese law only licensed ‘tour leaders’ can take large groups of tourists from China to other countries. There are strict requirements to be a licensed tour leader. Accordingly, they should pass the tour leader license test, have more than two years of experience as a tour guide in China and also pass CET Level 6 (College English test) in China before being allowed to take tour groups overseas.

“When illegal Chinese guides in Sri Lanka are caught by the police these people claim they are tour leaders from China, but they don’t have any license whatsoever,” Padmapriya said.

Chinese ‘colonization’   (2)Laws limited
According to President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), Mahen Kariyawasam, with the rapid growth of the Chinese leisure market, Chinese nationals were acting as interpreters and guides violating the laws of the country.

Some of the malpractices these notorious Chinese nationals engage in are: Conducting tours on their own without local tourist guide license; Exchanging currency whilst on tour; Collecting commissions from gem shops, souvenir shops etc; Using commissions to offset tour expenses, resulting in loss of foreign exchange; Operating without proper visa status and in certain instances using a visa which is non-related to tourism to engage in tourism related activities.

“Currently, there are 11 companies engaged in handling Chinese tourists, but only one is registered with Sri Lanka Tourism. The ownership composition (of these companies) is not known and needs to be investigated,” he further stressed.

At the meeting held last week, the Director of the Tourist Police had briefed those present about the constraints the police faced when discharging their duties, Kariyawasam revealed.

“The main constraint the Tourist Police faces is that the existing laws and regulations pertaining to arrest and prosecuting in courts are limited and these need to be amended in order to give more powers to the Tourist Police. However, he recommended SLAITO membership to make formal complaints whenever there are instances of violations and assured that, the police will investigate,” the SLAITO President said.

Another outcome of the meeting was that a decision was taken to form a group which handles Chinese tourists, while a collective decision was made to formulate guidelines for handling of Chinese tourists and for those guidelines to be made mandatory. It was decided to arrange a meeting with the Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and the Director General to brief them of the above situation and to discuss remedial action, Kariyawasam said.

In conclusion, Kariyawasam noted “It was agreed if not properly managed this would lead to serious violations of the laws of the land.”

Devastating effect
President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourist Guide Lecturers (SLITGL), Indika Withanage likened the situation to ‘colonization’ by the Chinese. “The Chinese are colonizing the tourist industry, and it’s having a devastating effect on the locals. Even Chinese prostitutes are now working as tourist guides”.

Withanage said his association, which has a membership of 1200 registered tourist guides, has been trying to bring the matter to the attention of the authorities for some time now. He pointed out that tourist guides have no fixed salary, nor do they get EPF/ETF benefits. “They have to depend on the commissions they get to survive. They can’t afford to lose that. Illegal Chinese guides are pushing them out of these opportunities,” he observed.

He also pointed out that there were legal requirements that had to be met prior to opening a travel agency. “They have to be registered with the Registrar of Companies. There needs to be capital and bank accounts. No such prerequisites are met by these illegal travel agencies that are being operated by Chinese nationals.”

While understanding that authorities were also faced with problems, Withanage said nonetheless, it was up to them to look after the interest of the locals who were suffering.

Chinese ‘colonization’   (3)Further discussions
A meeting was also due to be held between representatives of local Chinese speaking tourist guides and officials of the Department of Immigration and Emigration last week as a further part of discussions into the issue.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Guides Association of Sri Lanka, which comes under the SLITGL, has forwarded the following recommendations to Sri Lanka Tourism regarding measures it could take to minimize the problem: Ask Immigration to issue Language Specialist Visas only to office staff of travel companies and Chinese guides (5) trained by Sri Lanka Tourism and to send the list to Tourist Police; Force Travel Agents in China to send qualified English Speaking Tour Leaders; Train unlicensed local Chinese speaking guides to fill the void; Make it a rule to have a minimum capital of Rs.10 million to start a travel company in Sri Lanka by foreign nationals.

Now that media exposure has forced authorities to take a good look at a problem that is worsening each day, it is hoped that harsh words would be followed up with concrete actions.