Sri Lanka reported 2,050,832 tourist arrivals at the end of 2016 with an all time high of 224,791 in December 2016.
Despite the numbers the many shortcomings and limitations of the tourism industry has remained unaddressed thus far. However, recently Cabinet Ministers approved a proposal by Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, John Amaratunge.
Accordingly, facilities for classification of star hotels, minimum space and facilities of a hotel, decision on licence fees, registration and licence of hotels, provisions for discipline in hotels are some of the issues that would be adressed. Drafting of minimum criteria for hotel classification and preparation of laws to decide on minimum space and facilities of a hotel is currently underway.
However, the tourism industry is faced with a host of other problems. According to naturalist, Chamara Amarasinghe, one of the main issues in the tourist industry includes shortage of qualified guides in the country.
“The tour guides should be trained to suit the existing context in the country. The Tourist Board provides guides with an ancient course structured in the 1970s. Also, to obtain a licence a guide has to attend classes for three months on a continuous basis, which bars those with a job from opting for a licence.
“The field is restricted to mainly those who have just completed Ordinary or Advanced levels”, said Amerasinghe.
He emphasized the need for updated courses by the Ceylon Hotel School as well as standardizing private hotel schools in the country.
He also commented on the need for destination facilities to suit the target segment. “Yala National Park had no washroom a month ago and there is no place to buy food or water,” he said.
“There is also the need for rules, regulations and policies to ensure the security of the tourists. In some areas there is no tourist police and the local police officers sometimes find it difficult to handle the complaints due to the language barrier”.
Arunalu Lanka Tours, Travel agent and tour guide, Aruna Uddika said that the disparity between ticket rates for local and international tourists has been a reason for a grouse among foreign tourists.
Also the high rates for foreign tourists which add up to a considerable amount if different sites are visited have been noted mainly by backpacker tourists.
“Most backpackers opt out from visiting Sigiriya where the entrance fee is 35 US dollars (Rs. 5,250). Instead, they prefer Pidurangala where the entrance is low”, said Uddika.
Other sites which are popular with backpackers include Ella and Unawatuna.
He emphasized that backpackers stay for as long as three weeks in the country, which far benefits the local community than higher-end tourists.
“Places that offer home-stay options for them lack standards and tourists complain of hygiene levels maintained at these places. Since the persons running these places have received no training, ample misunderstandings arise through miscommunications which contribute to negative impressions among tourists. One reason for these misunderstandings is the separate entry fees that are not included in most local tour packages”, said Uddika.
He said that one difficulty in creating tour packages for backpackers lie on the low budget they function upon. “Since tour guides have no salaries, they survive on commissions and tips. These can’t be expected from backpackers,” said Uddika.
National tour guide lecturer and tour consultant, Eric de Alwis noted that the high entrance fees affect individual travellers. Especially if a family arrives, buying tickets at each site would be difficult to afford. “Ticketing prices in our cultural triangle must be one of the highest in Asia”, he declared.
Many Sri Lankan individuals have websites promoting tourists to visit the country.
But Alwis says the information is misleading. “Sometimes the information and package does not include all the details tourists need. Sometimes only vehicle prices are included in the package. This happens because there is a Iack of quality control over these matters,” he said.
He points out the need for information brochures at the sites as well as upgraded roads and increased washroom facilities within the site. He also emphasized on the need for a code of ethics for personal in the tourism industry.
“For example, in Yala if news spreads of a leopard being spotted drivers would speed up in order to reach the spot of sighting”, Alwis said.
According to Alwis, another matter that needs attention of regulatory authorities is the need for control over trishaw drivers who charge excessive amounts from tourists. “They should realize the whole country benefits from the tourists and that they should not give a negative image of the country,” Alwis pleaded.
He believes that knowledgeable tour guides should be made part of international promotion campaigns by the Tourism Promotion Bureau in order to obtain more positive results. “There is a need for service-conscious, service- oriented persons in the tourism industry so that tourists don’t go over to Thailand instead of visiting Sri Lanka”, said Alwis.
The Department of Archaeology, Acting Additional Director General (Academic), Prasanna B. Ratnayake acknowledged the existence of rackets involving ticketing at sites such as Sigiriya, where high priced tickets issued to tourists are subsequently collected from the tourists upon the completion of the sightseeing tour and resold.
The Government is currently involved in the process of introducing an electronic ticket (e-ticket) which includes a barcode to deal with these situations. Alwis highlighted the need for a national policy decision in relation to adding the cost of entrance tickets to sites to the initial cost of entry into the country so that a foreign tourist has to make only a one-off payment
Tourism Promotion Bureau, director general, Malraj Kiriella was not available for comment.