Mired in its worst-ever economic crisis with debts totaling over $50 billion, Sri Lanka may have to wait for some time to fall back on tourism to lessen the blow.
Kimarli Fernando, the Sri Lanka tourism chief, stepped down from her position on Tuesday following a resignation request from the newly-appointed tourism minister. But not before firing a strongly-worded resignation letter.
Fernando, who had been locked in a battle with the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators, hit out at what she calls is “a cartel of a handful of veterans.”
Among the many disagreements that she had with the inbound association, Fernando had objected to Thilak Weerasinghe, the association’s president, being on the government board for over seven years. An opportunity, which she said, should be held on rotation basis by other associations.
The tourism industry is not limited to a few Colombo-based associations represented on the tourism boards, known to dictate self-benefiting terms to political authorities, she mentioned in her letter to Harin Fernando, who was appointed tourism minister on Friday.
“The cartel also didn’t like my attempt to account for the dollars into the country from tourism as well as dollars to be directed to hotels who have foreign currency borrowings,” Fernando mentioned in the letter.
Tourism has been Sri Lanka’s third-largest foreign exchange-earner in 2019 bringing in an estimated $3.6 billion.
A seasoned banker with Standard Chartered Bank and Deutsche Bank and an attorney-at-law, Fernando is an alumna of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Besides being the first lady in her role as the tourism chief, she is also the first person to be heading Sri Lanka’s four main tourism entities — Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lanka Conventions Bureau, and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management.
Kishu Gomes, whom Fernando had succeeded as the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau chief, joined in her resignation call noting that industry stakeholders were dissatisfied with her.
Pointing out that these associations had also been objecting to benefits being meted out to small and medium enterprises, Fernando mentioned in her letter that they had also been against the long overdue shift to digital marketing.
Going back to archaic methods of marketing would hamper Sri Lanka’s competitiveness in the world tourism market, she warned. “The inability to understand the new traveller behaviour will continue to be detrimental to the industry.”
“The past business model in the industry has largely been to undercut on pricing, selling cheap resulting in many businesses not being financially viable from well before the Easter attacks and the pandemic.”
In the absence of ability to market and position the destination, she mentioned that the tourism minister would be asked to provide free visas and other incentives to promote the country based on “cheapness.”
Fernando mentioned in the letter that she had accepted this role on an honorary basis for the past 30 months and had not being drawing a salary, nor availing any of the benefits. She hoped this would be a good practice to encourage others to follow at this time of dire need.
Hitting out at the tourism minister for cancelling two meetings scheduled with her for May 21 and 23, she rued that it was regrettable and unprofessional that the two never met to review progress and guide on the best practices adopted.
“The cavalier attitude you have displayed does not bode well. I hope I am proved wrong,” she wrote.