We are Redesigning Tourism Strategy with the COVID-19 : Kimarli Fernando
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism Kimarli Fernando, challenges those who’d undermine the task of promoting the destination. “I told my staff to stop the corruption that they have been engaging in the past,” she told Ceylon Today. A firebrand, Fernando also warned tourism associations not to dictate terms to her and her organisation, as they have done with her predecessors. “Change your mindset, think globally and entertain the informal sector that is bigger than the formal sector,” she urged. “I don’t take a salary, nor use a State vehicle. I also use my own phone. My work in the last seven months is to remove the old ways that are barriers in promoting Sri Lanka tourism, and we are succeeding tremendously,” she added.
How are you going to market the destination having faced the Easter attacks and COVID-19?
A: Any international tourist considers safety paramount. Keeping that in mind, we have detailed COVID-19 guidelines so that all accommodations and restaurants need to be certified. We have given the certification process to an independent audit firm KPMG International Cooperative that has also worked for the Singapore Government. Firstly, it’s to make sure that Sri Lanka is safe with a working certification process. Secondly, we have created an App that provides an online immigration form where all details will be registered. This way we will know where a guest will be staying and travelling. The information will be sent to the Ministry of Health (MoH) and their 25 district hospitals daily.
So the Ministry will have all the information; form the time a guests applies for a visa till they leave the country. Thirdly, there is also a PCR test when the guest arrives and again in seven days. We are not aggressively marketing the country as it is not the time to do so and we also don’t know when airports are going to be opened for commercial flights. Health authorities are giving priority to Sri Lankan citizens overseas. We are looking at a Danish technology which includes a robotic arm that can do 33 PCR tests in one go that could work for one flight of passengers in 90 minutes. The mobile app will indicate that we will need four hours to analyze the test, to be on the safe side. Promotion should be linked to destination’s safety. Airlines will be also taking safety measures with PCR testing and will notify passengers to undergo tests 96 hours before boarding.
How will you do the PCR test on the seventh day after a guest arrives?
A: Since we will know the guest’s location, we will be able to coordinate. The private sector will do the test with MoH approval.
How about global promotion?
A: The Global Promotion Cabinet Paper was approved in January 2020. It is a five-year programme. The Paper was completed two years ago and looks at different segments of global tourism. The mature, immature market and emerging markets are studied. The procedures are long and arduous and we started the process during the pandemic itself.
Who drafted the plan?
A: We drafted the plan internally, but not the terms of reference and inputs by procurement specialists. Procurement is a difficult task. Even in my first seven months as chairperson, we are unable to make decisions with the procurements.
Is this the action plan the President wanted from Sri Lanka Tourism?
A: Yes. The President has 10 agendas in the manifesto. One is people-centric tourism sector and an administration free of corruption. What we want is an efficient public service and uplifiting international standards. For efficient public service, we have started with what is called ‘automation’. Since January, every single registration is done online. There were allegations of malpractices and online registration has ended that. We amended registration procedures and the requisite documents. We’ve only had less than 2,500 registered accommodations in the whole country in the last four decades or so. There is an informal sector with 25,000 that are not registered and we wonder why none succeeded to get them signed up.
We found that the process was unnecessarily difficult. This has kept the poor man out. For instance, there is a hotel running for 10 years on protected land that was leased to a hotelier. As long as you have a letter from the Wildlife Department on the lease agreement, we have no issue. We don’t need to know whether you own the land or hotel if conditions are met. Our goal is to make sure hotels are registered so that guests know what they want. Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, the Convention Bureau and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, which is under my purview (except for Hotel School), should create a conducive environment for the tourist industry to grow.
What shortcomings did you find?
A: For example, travel agent operations should meet the following criteria: 250 square feet office space for inbound travel agency and should have a reception hall, etc. So I asked the Board, mainly the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), why do we need such restrictions? They vehemently objected to any updates. Why do you need a large office space and reception or pamphlets because it is an inbound tour operator? The guest calls you and all you need is a phone. We finally changed despite many objections.
How did you change SLAITO’s traditional practices?
A: We got a lot of support from public service officials to remove the 250 square foot office space and reception rule and to keep the travel insurance and the registered location that can be also a home stay. Following this change we saw many travel agents registering. We got 300 new hotel accommodation registrations in the last seven months alone compared with the 2,500 registrations in the last three decades.
How did inbound operators come to know about the changes?
A: We ran ads and contacted many others. Now travel agent registration has increased by 23. We would have stayed this way if we think only of ourselves and not in terms of what the country needs. We had a biased market during the war and SLAITO dictated terms. Then and now, the Maldives charges more than USD 100 per guests and we were charging low during the war. This was the time when the 2005 Act where travel agent guidelines were drafted. Now it’s 11 years since the war ended, and international hotel chains are promoting their brands and running their own websites, getting domestic and international bookings. The Online Travel Agents (OTA) has grown tremendously.
Are you going to shelve old strategies?
A: Yes. There are several stakeholders with the biggest say and they dictate the agenda. SLAITO cannot dictate agendas anymore. They did during the war when things were different. There are those with nothing to do with Sri Lanka tourism officially because they are OTA. They don’t have Government assistance, they don’t pay any taxes and authorities take credit when tourists show in the millions. State associations should not take credit when tourists arrive via OTA. So we don’t want to underestimate the informal sector. They have contributed to local tourism more than others. We have changed guidelines so they all can take part.
What is your ultimate goal?
A: However, there are no representatives from the informal sector, like SMEs, tour guides, Wildlife drivers, Trincomalee and the Habarana and Hikkaduwa Tourism Associations. They have reps but no voices. Whereas SLAITO, which has only 250 members and employing about 4,000, dictate terms to Sri Lanka Tourism which they have been doing for decades.
What about the bureaucracy in Sri Lanka Tourisms – An industry that should be free from such?
A: That is not so. It’s about a certain group of people who continue to practice an old agenda. It’s not the whole SLAITO but some eight members pulling the strings. Others call to tell me that SLAITO doesn’t represent them although many are members.
How is SLAITO’s overall operation?
A: What do they invest in? They don’t have an official vehicle. They don’t even invest in property. They rent vehicles from the Chauffeur Tourist Guide Association and private business partners. What is their cost? You cannot ignore hoteliers. It is not their 4,000 staff who dictates terms. My predecessor may have accepted their terms and conditions but not me. I want them to refocus and include the informal sector as well. They have to take in the OTAs. If the informal sector joins us we can negotiate with them. We have a volume to negotiate. We can help them in their digital marketing and extend support in digital training. We will train them as soon as they register. This is how you help the poor. They did not get any relief package after the Easter blasts or for COVID. However, the OTA’s will have to start paying dues when we negotiate with them.
Are the registration fees and license fees relaxed?
A: We have relaxed it for this year only due to COVID. We are also going to do the new product and promotions as well. The European Union is extending funds to promote indigenous wellness products and develop a mobile app. The grant is 3.5 million Euros and the app will be called ‘Visit Sri Lanka’.
When is that coming?
A: The EU has done the study and the implementation is ongoing. We need the health authority’s guideline on Ayurveda. That has been done and is tabled in Parliament. We also have the capacity building in terms of human resources for Ayurveda. To this end, the product development is mainly by the private sector. Kerala leads in this sector and we never promoted it. We don’t have a brand name or logo for Ayurveda. Some private sector is promoting it but there needs to be more improvement on the product itself. We can pitch Ayurveda quit well in midst of the pandemic.
How long will it take to see all these taking shape with all the negativities in the backdrop?
A: We have handled the pandemic well; it has given us a chance to reboot. I will resist anyone stopping me from driving on Sri Lanka Tourism because this is our chance. We can reset the price-based marketing to product-based marketing. Slow tourism has no place. We should pitch Sri Lanka high. We have to say we are an expensive and premium product. We have being pitching low so it has been difficult to rise.
The Easter attacks grounded tourism. When can we pitch high?
A: We received 1.9 million tourist arrivals after the blasts. The previous year was the highest with 2.3 million arrivals. The SLAITO asked for a visa free package. We made losses of six billion rupees by giving free visas. They also went to the Prime Minister recently in my presence and asked for free visas again. I told them that they forced the last regime to go visa free and made losses as a result. It’s just USD 35 per person which is Rs 6,000 roughly. Do we want a guests who cannot pay Rs 6,000? We might as well not have that guest. I was stern on this.
SLAITO asked for Rs 6 billion to pay their staffers salaries. What have you done about it?
A: We gave them a four per cent loan and they were satisfied. However, the Treasury is trying to find the funding to subsidise that amount. The Treasury, the Central Bank and Sri Lanka Tourism are working on how to subsidise that interest. It has been approved by the Cabinet but not yet executed since we are working on the mechanism to fund it.
Did you suspend 18 permanent staffers working at Sri Lanka Tourism’s information centre and the HR Manager. Why?
A: Not true. They were on contract basis.
Wasn’t there a circular requesting to make them permanent?
A: No. There were 18 staffers before I took office. The previous HR head is on probation now. She requested the then chairman in writing for confirmation letters to make the 18 permanent and had mentioned in the letter: ‘however, those confirmation would be subject to the Treasury’s approval’ which she did not get. That confirmation from the Treasury never came so we consider them to be on contract. The HR manger also had several allegations about her poor performance and the previous chairperson had also made complaints about her.
Haven’t they all gone to the Labour Tribunal?
A: I personally think the 18 should be reinstated because it’s the HR manager who did not complete the task of their permanency; she had mislead them.
There is a Rs. 150 million corruption that had taken place at your UK office and the internal audit urged those involved to return the sum. It is about an event that never took place in the UK but the money has been absorbed and the person who handled it was working on a contract. The matter has been referred to the Bribery Commission too. Can you clear the doubts?
A: It’s not Rs. 150 million, and it was nine years ago. I was not informed that it had gone to the Bribery Commission. However the matter has been referred to Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism Hettiarachchi. Our official, then an assistant director, did not recruit the said staffer. The entire blame is on her now. I studied the whole file and no one can find her guilty of that charge. I’m referring to our PR Director and Acting MD, Madubani Perera. There was a letter from our office in 2018 to the HK High Commissioner, that they are responsible for this official handling Sri Lanka Tourism there. Why will our PR director be held responsible? There is no probe about her involvement. The audit report should mention the then HK High Commissioner.
Sri Lanka Tourism also suffered due to its slow approval process, etc. How will this be tackled?
A: Yes. When you want to invest, one has to go to 34 line agencies for approvals. So we put all forms in one master document which covers all the agencies. There are sections in that app, i.e. the UDA approval and environment clearance. When the person signs that application, we will do the needful and inform the 34 agencies. We have used the same method to build with civil aviation, airport and Immigration Department. Our online visa application is on the app. I totally agree that the procurement and procedures are hard. Even now, when I want to do a simple job, I need 11 signatures to get it done. It’s a huge hindrance because one official can block you from proceeding. But with the new app, we got a procurement specialist funded by the UNDP who is assisting us to navigate within these specifics. The Government is looking for a procurement platform and the system must change.