Can Mammootty and tourism save the battered Sri Lankan economy?

Photo: Twitter/ @Sanath07 (L) | AFP/ Ishara S. Kodikara (R)

Swashbuckling southpaw Sanath Jayasuriya changed the tenor of one-day cricket with his pinch-hitting prowess in the first 15 overs, when the field restrictions were in place, in the 1996 World Cup which helped Sri Lanka to script history as they rose from the underdog status to become world champions. After bidding adieu to the game, Jayasuriya donned various hats as a cricket selector, coach and politician. Lately, he was seen at the forefront of protests against the rule of the Rajapaksa family. After the people’s movement booted out the Rajapaksas, Ranil Wickremesinghe had been elected as the president and Dinesh Gunawardene was appointed as the prime minister of the island nation. 

Photo: Shutterstock/TRphotos

Presently, Sri Lanka, which is facing an acute shortage of food, fuel and medicine, is treading on a difficult path to recovery. Jayasuriya, who had been recently picked as Lanka’s tourism ambassador, is taking guard to start a new innings to prop up the battered economy riding on the huge tourism potential of the tear-drop-shaped island. The former opening batsman, who received Malayalam superstar Mammootty the other day, has invited celebrities and tourists from India to visit Sri Lanka to enjoy the pristine beauty of the island. 

Then an opening batter, now a tourism ambassador   
Jayasuriya had extended his greetings on the occasion of India’s Independence Day celebrations on Twitter and one statement in the message stood out. “Special thanks for being such a good friend to Sri Lanka during our time of need.” The next day the former cricketer received Mammootty who came to Sri Lanka for the shoot of a movie ‘Kadugannawa oru yatra’, which will be part of a bouquet of 10 films written by one of the greatest living Indian writers M T Vasudevan Nair, and directed by Ranjith. The movie is mainly canned in Kandy, which is a Buddhist centre and tourism hub, and Kadugannawa, which lies between the Kegalle-Kandy valley.   

The government had appointed Jayasuriya as the brand ambassador of Sri Lankan tourism just 10 days before he met Mammootty and now he is burning the midnight oil to attract more tourists to the island nation. Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of 2.2 crores, close to 30 lakh people are dependent on tourism to earn a livelihood. The yearly revenue from the tourism sector was nearly 4.5 billion dollars and the tourism industry was the third highest contributor to the nation’s kitty before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy. Sri Lanka is mainly visited by tourists from the United Kingdom, India, and China.  

The severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves and drastic dip in income from the tourism sector had pushed Sri Lanka into an economic meltdown. Moreover, the Easter serial bombings of April 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic had given a serious dent in the Sri Lankan economy. Presently, the total debt of the island nation is a whopping 51 billion dollars. It is expected that the economy would get a new lease of life with the revival of the tourism industry and India would play a pivotal role in the resurrection of the tourism sector. 

Ramayana trail and Buddhism 
Immediately after assuming office as the tourism ambassador, Jayasuriya held discussions with India’s High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Baglay. After the meeting, Jayasuriya announced a project to promote the Ramayana trail in a bid to add muscle to the tourism sector. It is said that there are 52 places in Sri Lanka that are linked with the epic Ramayana. Sri Lanka and India had agreed to increase cooperation on cultural and religious grounds on the basis of Ramayana in 2008. 

Photo: Shutterstock/Cristi Popescu

India had expressed its commitment to invest in the tourism sector as part of the efforts to help Sri Lanka recover from economic collapse. The ways and means to attract pilgrims to Sri Lanka were also looked into. Another tourism project on the anvil is to connect Buddhist centres in India and Sri Lanka, and talks were recently conducted on that front. 

India as a neighbour and market 
Undoubtedly, India is the biggest market for Sri Lanka. India is the main force that drives tourism in Sri Lanka and its airline companies. As part of promoting tourism activities, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau is planning to organize exhibitions in Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad in September. 

In a bid to stimulate the tourism industry, the Sri Lankan government had made marked changes in the visa rules. People with multiple entry visas can stay up to 180 days instead of the earlier 30 days and those with single entry visas can be in Sri Lanka for 270 days. The visa rules had been amended to facilitate a longer stay for tourists and garner more foreign exchange. 

New Delhi had extended financial help, including a credit line, to the tune of 3.5 billion dollars to Colombo. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin had sent consignments of essentials to help the citizens of Sri Lanka. India is aiming to work together in more sectors and chalk out new projects in a bid to assist Sri Lanka in its recovery. India needs to have a strong presence in Sri Lanka in order to overcome the challenges posed by China.  It may be noted that Colombo had agreed in January to New Delhi’s request to jointly operate the 61 gigantic oil tanks that were built by the British during the Second World War at the Trincomalee port. 

Spike in tourist arrivals 
Around 17,000 foreign tourists visited Sri Lanka in the first two weeks of August. The month of July also witnessed a significant increase in tourist arrivals. According to a report by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, 47,293 tourists entered the shores of the island nation in July and the figures were 30,207 in May and 32,856 in June. Among the tourists who visited Sri Lanka in July, the majority of them hailed from the UK, India, Germany, France and Canada. The breakup of tourists is as follows: UK – 20 percent, India – 13 percent, Germany, France and Canada – 8 percent each. The Sri Lankan government is of the opinion that the situation could have been rosier if there was no war in Ukraine. 

Photo: Shutterstock/Soloviova Liudmyla

Tourism to be revived at any cost 
Sri Lanka is determined to restore the old glory of the tourism sector. The country has launched a project that ensures adequate fuel for vehicles transporting tourists.  A decision had been taken to provide fuel to all vehicles registered with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. The other day it was also decided to give special fuel permits to travellers arriving at the airport. Eyeing the development of the tourism industry and increasing revenue, the government took the step to issue beer-wine licences to hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists. 

Stability of airline industry need of the hour  
The tourism sector is bound to become robust as the winter season is nigh in the western countries, according to the Sri Lankan government. But at the same time, it will be a tall order to source enough fuel for domestic and international flights. A meeting convened by the aviation minister decided to allow private oil firms to take the initiative to import oil if Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Petroleum Corporation is not able to meet the demand for fuel. 

Photo: Shutterstock/Curioso.Photography

As there was an acute shortage of aviation fuel, the government had earlier directed the airline companies to reduce the number of passengers. But the airlines were forced to cancel flights many times as it was not viable to fly with less number of travellers. Some flights touched down at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Chennai for refuelling purposes. The Sri Lankan government’s stand is to make fuel available under any circumstance. 

Aiming to give an impetus to the tourism sector, Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Harin Fernando recently held discussions with US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung. After the meeting, Chung noted on Twitter: “I am eager to share SL’s natural beauty & fascinating culture with more Americans, and believe that a safe, sustainable return to tourism is key to SL’s economic recovery.” 

The way out 
The experts opine that the first step towards economic recovery is to restructure its huge foreign debt. First, the island nation should restructure the loans taken from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and later the debts it owes to China, Japan and India. The financial pundits also suggest that Sri Lanka should utilize the 1.3 to 1.5 billion dollars of foreign exchange reserves to import essentials such as food, fuel and medicines. 

Blunders galore 
One of the main reasons that triggered the economic meltdown is former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to slash taxes in 2019. It is estimated that this move by the Rajapaksas resulted in a revenue dip of nearly 2.2 billion dollars per year. Recently, the tax cuts were withdrawn as one of the IMF clauses for disbursing loans to Colombo was to roll back the decision to reduce taxes. 

The foolish order to ban the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the agriculture sector also paved the way for the crisis. The Rajapaksas wanted the nation to return to organic farming.  But it is said that the real reason behind the decision was to save dollars that had to be coughed up to import fertilizers. Whatever the reason, the ban resulted in a drastic dip in rice production and the tea exports that earned maximum forex for the country crashed by 16 percent. The government was forced to withdraw the ban after massive protests by farmers in November. 

Photo: Shutterstock/Rakhitha_w

Another reason for the economic setback was the drying up of inward remittances from 30 lakh Lankans working in other countries. The Lankans settled in foreign countries used to send more than 500 million dollars every month. But this money took the ‘hawala’ route when the government reduced the exchange rate for the inward remittances.  

Determined to bounce back 
Sri Lanka is slowly but surely treading the long winding path to recovery. It needs to be seen whether the visit of Mammooty would help in bringing more movie stars and more film shooting work to the island.


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