State Minister of Tourism Diana Gamage recently came under severe attack for her bold remarks on Sri Lanka lacking adequate night life for foreign tourists. Ceylon Today, in an interview with Gamage explored what she actually meant and her plans to boost country’s tourism industry.

Following is the excerpts:

Do you really think Sri Lanka still have untapped areas to be developed when it comes to the island’s tourism industry?

A: Sri Lanka, despite being an island, has not yet explored the full potential of areas where it can be promoted internationally as a tourist destination. We have so many things in this country to offer to tourists coming from different parts of the world. We have been accustomed to only focus on tourists who come here for tropical weather and golden beaches. But the tourism we have to promote is much more than that.

Can you elaborate on it?

A: We have not explored our potential on medical tourism yet.  We can promote our indigenous and Ayurvedic treatments and attract a large number of tourists especially from western countries.  There are lots of countries in the world where Ayurvedic treatment is accepted, where they’re eager to study further about it. Even now there are many who visit Sri Lanka just for Ayurvedic and indigenous treatments. I am even planning on proposing a University or a school where tourists can enrol to study Ayurveda and indigenous medicine.

Another area we can have hope on is sports tourism. For instance, like IPL, we too can attract many through cricket. Then we have coastal areas such as Arugambay where we could hold world class surfing tournaments.

The world out there is curious about our agriculture. Then there is educational tourism, ecotourism and many other areas as the world is already curious to learn about our weather, soil and agricultural methods. Even our agricultural professionals can be sent to other countries to demonstrate our agricultural methods and learn about their agricultural techniques.

Talking about cultural tourism, we have Sigiriya, Dambulla and Anuradhapura etc. When we look at the North and the East, we have a lot of cultural aspects that is yet to be explored, where I’m planning to visit. I will also look to provide job opportunities by developing businesses there.  Next week is tourist week and I am planning to visit Habarana and Arugambay.

There are many vacant lands that are just going to waste which we can utilise for recreational and entertainment purposes where tourists can spend and enjoy themselves.

You seem to be quite enthusiastic about developing recreational and entertainment tourism. However, do you think it could be done in Sri Lanka and do we really have foreign tourists who would spend on such activities?

A: Yes, entertainment recreational tourism should be improved because there aren’t places around the country where tourists can go spend. There is no nightlife or night economy in our country, the people in this country have money to spend. It is the Government that doesn’t have any money.

The Government should take measures to create opportunities so tourists can spend more money in this country. Many misunderstood when I was talking about converting the island of Mannar.

We, over the years, have utilised the Island of Mannar only to dry fish. It can be developed predominantly as an entertainment zone where all transactions are carried out in dollars. It is an ideal island to build a theme park, rather than a place to dry fish. Not only Mannar, the islets around the country can also be developed in the same way.

We have never reached out to the tourist market in Scandinavian countries. There are many high-end tourists in the Scandinavian region who don’t know about Sri Lanka. I would like to attract these tourists. They have invited me to visit their countries and I will use that opportunity to promote Sri Lanka. There are many plans that I wish to keep to myself until I implement them. Once it is done, the critics will understand what I was talking about.

Don’t you think you are inviting unwanted criticism by talking about developing nightlife and similar activities in a country that prioritises its long rooted cultures and religions?

A: Many criticised that I only talk about bringing in dollars with casinos and night clubs when I was talking about the night economy and entertainment tourism. Of course, that’s what it is, that is where tourists can spend and promote tourism, by only accepting dollars in these places.

 If you take Macao, many think that the place is all about prostitution, night clubs and casinos. But for me, Macao is much more than that. The number of Rosewood shops that Macao has is enormous and local’s livelihood based on the Rosewood industry is huge in Macao. Family and Children’s entertainment sector in Macao is also remarkable. We should not always try to step back and look at these things with a crooked vision. We should be open-minded to explore and implement to get the best out of what we have.

When I talked about nightlife I did not refer to prostitution. Nightlife goes beyond prostitution. There are no entertainment activities in Colombo after 10:00 pm and the city becomes dormant.

Most people come to cities to dine and spend time at the pubs. But here in Colombo, the situation is entirely different. People don’t have nightlife here. All the shops and entertainment pull their shutters down after 10:00 pm.

I propose that bars and liquor shops should be kept open from 10 am to 10pm. I have made this proposal earlier and want to make the proposal once again. Unauthorised sales take place through the backdoor when liquor stores are closed early. The Government will not be able to collect taxes from this kind of sales. I also propose that all supermarkets should be granted beer licences. A foreign tourist should be able to purchase some liquor during the night time.

Some people start talking about culture and religion when an effort is made to develop the nation. Even monks have criticised me. Those who criticise me by bringing up religion hardly understand Buddhism.

There have been several occasions when the safety of tourists has been threatened; this is a massive setback, as the State minister how do you expect to combat this? 

A: I expect to improve the Tourist Police with special training and for severe punishments on those who harass tourists. Due to inconsiderable number of offenders we risk the reputation of the whole country. Tourist safety is an essential. In order to promote our country, we should be able to confidently say that, “Sri Lanka is a safe country and you can walk the streets anytime you want”. You and I wouldn’t visit a country if we cannot be sure of our safety; likewise, neither will they.

Your statement on legalising cannabis made headlines. There is an argument that your proposal is against the country’s values. Could you explain how cannabis will attract dollars?

A: I proposed that the growing of Ganja should be allowed, but I don’t approve of people smoking it by the roadside. What I mean is that Ganja should be promoted as an Ayurvedic medicine.

When efforts are made to develop the nation, those who speak of culture and religion make Sri Lanka stagnant without any development.

Thailand is a Buddhist country but its Health Minister has legalised cannabis. However, if you are caught transporting cannabis there’s a fine. Last month they had a cannabis exhibition showing the world the products that could be made with cannabis. Around 2.2 million visited this exhibition. I think Thailand is more Buddhist than we are and they practise Buddhism more than us. Here, we follow Buddhism for namesake. Cannabis has been associated with our history for centuries. Women used cannabis as a painkiller during pregnancy.

I come from a Buddhist background but that doesn’t mean that I should sit in a temple and let the country go down the drain. Many Buddhist monks are supporting me with this idea. It was banned in this country by the British and it should be legalised once again. Cannabis goes with our culture. Ravana’s grandson and his association with hemp can be discovered in the manuscripts. The amount of products that could be made using the hemp tree is numerous. I use toothpaste and a toothbrush made out of hemp. Hemp cream, shampoo and conditioner are some of the other products. Everything from ice cream to biscuits, cereals, textiles, coffee, tea, chocolate, bricks, bags and paper could be made from the hemp tree. Cultivating hemp for commercial purposes will be one way to end poverty in this country as it would provide more job opportunities to people in these areas. Investors too will invest billions of dollars and we can revive the country back to prosperity. We therefore have to focus on its commercial value. 

We are still in the 18th Century. We are talking about ‘one country one law’ and we need to practise what we preach. But we are still under British Law and how can we progress with these still in place? 

Pic by Laksiri Rukman

By Nabiya Vaffoor


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