Tourism heads at each other’s necks

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Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), Kimarli Fernando, and the President of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), Thilak Weerasinghe, exchanged strong letters on the ongoing dispute between the two institutions, where Fernando accused Weerasinghe of ‘hiding behind media releases’ and going overseas with his family without facing her to address the critical challenges of the tourism industry, to which Weerasinghe responded that his travel overseas was his personal business and it should not be of any concern to her.

“I had not hidden anywhere as you keep on mentioning but been continuing with a pre-arranged business trip. In point of fact, you may recall that I had already mentioned to you of my pre planned absence from the country when we met prior to the SLTDA Board Meeting. I disagree that it was your efforts that kept the industry moving forward during my five-day absence due to the pre-planned business trip to France,” Weerasinghe responded in his letter dated April 21.

Weerasinghe sent her a strong letter dated April 21 on the allegations she tabled on the SLAITO and undermined his Association.

Over the recently held protests in front of the SLTDA, calling for the removal of Fernando from her Chairmanship, Weerasinghe said the protest was held by tourism industry stakeholders on the road outside the SLTDA and SLITHM buildings, which are also public property. Any citizen of this country is free to protest in any public place, he said. “Your attitude of ownership of the tourism industry is very clear through this one statement. This is exactly how you have behaved during your entire tenure, on the basis that the whole industry is your personal property.” He also reminded her that she was merely a political appointee to a Government Institution, a caretaker for a limited period of time. Therefore, her statement “your protest held outside my institution” is not valid.

He further elaborated on the accusations she made on the SLAITO’s objection to remove unnecessary regulations to support smaller travel agents. “We never objected to remove regulations to support smaller Travel Agents as the SLTDA Chairman had claimed,” Weerasinghe noted. “For your information, more than 95% of our membership is from the SME Sector. This is also the case with Committee Representation of SLAITO. We consider the SME Sector in Tourism an integral part of the Industry. It is clear that you keep making this accusation for your own needs of creating a rift within the industry and the membership, for reasons best known to you. We challenge you to show proof if there is any, to justify your accusation. We will however, always encourage to maintain standards, best practices and fairness, to create a level playing field for all,” he added.

“We have no objection whatsoever to increasing tour guide fees. In fact, it is SLAITO that has initiated and continued with a practice of having discussions with the SLINTGL, once in two years, and agree on a fair wage taking all factors into consideration. Further, what is agreed is only a minimum rate and the practice in the Industry is that the guides get paid much higher wages depending on their experience, attitude and skill. We have tried explaining this to you many times, but like in all situations, you are adamant and only hear your own voice.

SLAITO also noted that when a proposal to offer Rs 25,000 per tour guide and Rs 15,000 per chauffeur guide as financial support was brought up, Weerasinghe said he had agreed in principle, that this must be given. However, he had requested for a clarification, asking for the number of tour guides and chauffeur guides that would receive this benefit, to maintain transparency, because the total pay-out proposed, did not tally and was leaving room for abuse.

He also pointed out that the objection to changing the present Tourism Act is not one that has been raised only by the SLAITO. It is a collective call from all stakeholders including the Chairman of the Tourism Task Force who have invested heavily in the industry and contribute by way of TDL, without which there would be no funds for Tourism Promotion or running the Institutions of the Industry.

The entire industry is aware of how the SLTDA made money out of the Covid Insurance as well as the PCR Tests whilst insisting they were made in dollars. This again is illegal going by the Act, Weerasinghe stressed.

He also pointed out that her round of visits to 5 star Hotels in Colombo to make a statement. He said, “You visited stakeholders to help solve their problems. This again shows that your interest is only in the big and luxury properties whilst talking about being people-centric and working for the SME sector”.

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan