So Sri Lanka, whatever that means
Last Monday Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities launched another promotional brand with the tagline “So Sri Lanka”. As tradition would have it, proceedings got underway with the country’s new tourism minister Vasantha Senanayake, (probably the first among the new bunch of ministers to make a break for the airport and enplane to London) lighting the oil lamp. He was followed by Lord Naseby who appears to have been roped in for the occasion. Everything appeared to be tickety-boo. After all, it is not every day one sees a Lord with a candle lighting the ceremonial lamp.
So now we are asked to forget the old slogans once created, at some expense, no doubt, to attract visitors from around the world. Some creative genius came up with the idea that Sri Lanka was the “The Wonder of Asia”. That, it appears, is now passé and will end up in the dustbin. Then some other wise guy with a more vivid imagination called it “A Land Like No Other” which is closer to the truth seeing what goes on in our thrice-blessed isle. That too will be, if it has not already been, relegated to the attic of forgotten things.
Sri Lanka is indeed a land like no other. Since the turn of the century Sri Lanka’s leaders have acted in ways that have made ‘ a land like no other’ tag, more than a mere advertising gimmick.
After all, where else in this whole wide world do you have one president, two prime ministers and over half a hundred ministers and lesser odd-bods at one time functioning and now non-functus (if one might call it that) in this land like no other.
One prime minister is holed up in his official residence “Temple Trees”, like the Jews atop Masada who defiantly resisted the Roman legions below, an ancient myth that was exposed as such sometime in the last century.
A few kilometres away, the newly appointed prime minister and former president is in control of the prime minister’s office on Flower Road.
One does not need to be some constitutional panjandrum to know that if one prime minister is legitimate the other must be illegitimate unless the constitution allows both.
Or maybe we have adopted a rather common marketing gimmick. How about “elect one prime minister and get another one free”.
All these dark doings -- sacking the prime minister who had earlier helped a lacklustre cabinet minister to become the country’s president and throwing the cabinet out lock, stock and santhosams -- happened ten days or so before the London event.
With all the plans made for an event launch at the World Travel Market (WTM), it was obviously too late for Sri Lanka Tourism’s busy bodies to shift gear and make a pit stop. After all the WTM is held but once a year and these efforts were aimed at enticing tourists to Sri Lanka during the winter in Europe and elsewhere.
One cannot blame tourism’s big beasts for being caught out by Sirisena’s political manoeuvres which usually happen in the dark. It might be recalled that it was in the night that he dined on egg hoppers with the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa before deserting him the next day.
If the stories circulated are true then there were very few who actually knew about Sirisena’s intentions to dislodge his prime minister who had thrown his party’s weight behind Sirisena at election time.
If all this was done with utmost secrecy, though there were signs that Sirisena was moving his heavy artillery for a verbal bombardment of the UNP, it seems to have caught most people flat-footed.
During a visit to London a month or so ago, Namal Rajapaksa did tell a gathering at Wembley that the SLPP now under his father’s control was making plans to challenge the government.
I doubt that the high and mighty involved in the tourism industry have any need for astrologers, seeing that some star gazers have come a cropper trying to advise politicians where to get off or get in.
But, then not even those who are adept at interpreting planetary movements are likely to read Sirisena’s doosra, which he seems to have picked up lately f rom Roya l C o l l e g e ( Polonnaruwa) to dismiss a wellcoached team from Royal College (Colombo).
Why, just as I was sitting down to write this column, came the news that the loud mouthed politician who, over three years, ago denigrated the “Common Candidate” calling him “aiyo Sirisena” has been made a minister and given back his former portfolio.
Which only shows that politics is a game with revolving doors played by those who can do little else except participate in a side show called give and take. It is better known in Sinhala as ganudenu. Some say that when it comes to politicians it is more ganu than denu.
But then we should not castigate our patriots and heroes who are trying to save our nation from sliding down the tube to be labelled a keselgedi republic.
What concerns us is the unfortunate contretemps our tourism industry would have to face because of the antics of politicians who collectively or individually are determined to save the country from chaos.
But the chaos is already upon us. The uncertainty created by power politics and the desire to cling onto power even by those who claimed they will eschew politics after one stint have done a great disservice to the tourism industry.
Even before the launch of the new slogan and a PR effort to maximise tourist arrivals, capitalising on the Lonely Planet’s plug for Sri Lanka, the political mess at home is frightening away potential visitors.
Some countries have issued travel advisories warning their citizens to be careful. Whether Sri Lanka thinks these advisories are uncalled for is not the point. The countries that issued them are duty bound to caution their citizens even if our politicians do not pay much attention to the consequences of their antics on their people.
Industry sources are already complaining about the adverse effects that power hungry politicians have had, with the cancellation of bookings already made for the coming winter and hotels facing the prospect of empty rooms.
To add to the political havoc caused by politicians only interested in protecting their turf, there is a tussle over who is really responsible for the new blurb.
So the winter season that the tourism industry expected would bring more visitors to the country is confronted with diminishing returns. The prevailing uncertainty in the country, where even parliament has been silenced when it should be used to legitimise where real power resides, is hardly likely to bring tourists flocking.
So the political antics of a few have punctured the expectations of many in the industry who were hoping to build on what has gone before.
Now they are left to play around with the industry’s new slogan. Some have produced some colourful slogans but they are not fit to print. Personally I think a less obnoxious one might be better.
“So Sri Lanka what a glorious mess” may serve as a starting point.
In fact, it keeps coming closer to the truth as the ongoing commission of inquiry into SriLankan and Mihin Lanka airlines continues to unearth embarrassing information.
So now we are told that “So Sri Lanka” is the ‘ in thing’. If there are many still scratching their heads since the London launch and more scholarly types delving into linguistic mappings and researching literary works going as far back as Chaucer trying to make sense of this half-baked sentence, it is surely understandable.
Since the launch, I have met Sri Lankans, not necessarily connected to the tourism industry yet intrigued by the new slogan, which some of them say the blurb writers seem to have forgotten to complete.
There are two sides to this debate. Some say it is catchy, though it has no ending. Others say to leave the tag hanging in the air like it now does, is amateurish and a shoddy job.
While advertising pundits and tourism experts cross swords on the new slogan, there is a saying about the best laid plans of mice and men -- to adapt the words of Robert Burns -falling apart.