Warm-hearted Sri Lankans

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT/FEATURE -

S1: As a vis­it­ing tourist goes through the aero bridge out­side the flight gate into the Ban­daranaike In­ter­na­tional Airport lobby, walk­ing past airport of­fi­cials and smartly-clad SriLankan Air­lines’ ground staff, the mood is any­thing but wel­com­ing. They are greeted by glum or stern faces.

As the visi­tor ap­proaches the im­mi­gra­tion counter, the of­fi­cer looks at you war­ily as if to say, “Why are you here? Do you have a proper visa?” No smiles, no warm wel­come. Across the airport, apart from an ex­cep­tional of­fi­cial, staff is gen­er­ally un­friendly.

Last week, bring­ing my car to a halt at a pedes­trian cross­ing on Galle Road near McDon­alds, Kollupi­tiya, when the lights had turned red, I was in­trigued by a young Sri Lankan who was wait­ing to cross the road. He was en­grossed in a con­ver­sa­tion with an el­derly, re­spectably-dressed woman who ap­peared to be beg­ging. He sud­denly re­alised that traf­fic had stopped and the green in­di­ca­tor to cross had come on. Quickly dip­ping into his pocket and fish­ing out a note, he gave it to the woman, gen­tly tap­ping her on the shoul­der in a ges­ture of “I un­der­stand or em­pathise with your plight” and ran across the road. I quickly tooted the horn, caus­ing him to turn around quickly as he rushed across and gave him a ‘thumbs up’ to ac­knowl­edge his good ges­ture. Sur­prised at first, he then re­turned the smile.

While the sec­ond case ex­em­pli­fies the nat­u­ral Sri Lankan trait – be­ing a gen­er­ous, warm and friendly na­tion of peo­ple, the first case gives a wrong no­tion of Sri Lanka be­ing an un­wel­come place for vis­i­tors – when in fact all chan­nels should be switched on to greet vis­i­tors with a pleas­ant smile.

And in the month of De­cem­ber where there is a lot of good­will, shar­ing and pleas­antry, pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor or­gan­i­sa­tions in­volved in tourism should be­gin a crash course on mak­ing Sri Lanka a more wel­come place for the four mil­lion-plus vis­i­tors the coun­try hopes to wel­come by 2020.

Sri Lankans have a good heart, a warm smile and are gen­er­ous to a point – as de­picted in the ex­am­ple above. So how can the coun­try ben­e­fit from an ‘as­set’ that comes nat­u­rally (and at no cost) par­tic­u­larly in mak­ing tourists wel­come at the first point of con­tact – the airport?

First im­pres­sions mat­ter to any visi­tor and this is where the au­thor­i­ties and pri­vate sec­tor in­sti­tu­tions en­gaged in tourism have failed over the years, fo­cus­ing more on the hard­ware than the soft­ware. Large bill­boards greet vis­i­tors with a woman, palms pressed to­gether, smil­ing brightly. But below the poster, an of­fi­cial or ground ste­ward would of­ten have an in­dif­fer­ent, bored or even sullen look. There is no warm and friendly at­mos­phere at the airport, par­tic­u­larly at the un­friendly immi- gra­tion coun­ters.

With tourism tak­ing prece­dence in the coun­try’s growth model through in­creas­ing for­eign ex­change rev­enue, more em­ploy­ment and more ben­e­fits trick­ling down to com­mu­nity level, this year’s bud­get pro­vided a lot of ben­e­fits to this sec­tor.

All the good vibes in the ‘hard­ware’ con­text are there: Paratar­iffs re­moved off some im­ported food and bev­er­ages; home­s­tays en­cour­aged with a credit fa­cil­ity which has been bud­geted at Rs. 10 mil­lion (though this would be just enough for 10 or fewer homes @ the rate of Rs. 1 mil­lion for ren­o­va­tion); ra­tio­nal­is­ing liquor li­cences; de­vel­op­ing an­cient forts as tourist at­trac­tions; en­hanc­ing the value of rail­way sta­tions like Nanu Oya, Colombo Fort, Galle and Ella by dec­la­ra­tion as ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites; de­vel­op­ing do­mes­tic air­ports; and hold­ing three street fes­ti­vals and ex­hi­bi­tions in Los An­ge­les, Lon­don and Mum­bai dur­ing the com­ing year to co­in­cide with Sri Lanka’s 70th In­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tion (the trade says the Rs. 50 mil­lion al­lo­cated is peanuts com­pared to the cost of an event in those coun­tries). How­ever, let’s leave those nega­tives for an­other day.

In the area of ‘soft­ware’ which is the fo­cus of to­day’s dis­cus­sion, the au­thor­i­ties de­serve praise in in­tro­duc­ing a tourist-friendly ‘tuk tuk’ where the driv­ers will be pro­vided free train­ing as tourist guides.

As I type on the desk­top – one fin­ger at a time, the old ways of us­ing a type­writer or com­puter key­board for an un­trained person -- the morn­ing’s si­lence is bro­ken by Kussi Amma Sera’s voice at the gate, rep­ri­mand­ing a young beg­gar, How­ever, de­spite her se­vere tones and scold­ings, she takes out a cou­ple of 10-ru­pee coins from a hem­biliya hid­den, un­der her hette and within her buxom bo­som, gives it to the man and sends him away. Gen­eros­ity seems to be over-spilling this Fri­day morn­ing, the first day of De­cem­ber de­spite the gloomy over­cast skies, con­tin­u­ous rains, gusty winds and per­sonal tragedies. De­cem­ber, in fact, is the month of greet­ings, giv­ing, shar­ing of gifts and, for the high rollers, par­ty­ing notwith­stand­ing the po­lit­i­cal chaos in the city with the rum­blings of thun­der not in the skies but elec­tion­eer­ing dur­ing the up­com­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions.

State au­thor­i­ties deal­ing with tourism must com­bine with the pri­vately-led tourism in­dus­try to pro­vide a warmer wel­come to every for­eign guest ar­riv­ing in the coun­try (and even on de­par­ture). It should be the kind of warmth to some ex­tent seen at the Colombo Port where Kandyan dancers and drum- mers greet vis­i­tors ar­riv­ing on any cruise ship.

If the tourism au­thor­i­ties can come up with a model where every guest ar­riv­ing at the airport is greeted with a flower and a smile, with the im­mi­gra­tion coun­ters manned by a smil­ing of­fi­cer, a small ‘wel­come’ no­tice and a bowl con­tain­ing fresh flow­ers or sweets, that would go a long way in en­hanc­ing the Sri Lankan product. This is in ad­di­tion to en­sur­ing tourists not get­ting ha­rassed like the case of a Bri­tish na­tional, a Bud­dhist her­self, who was de­ported for sport­ing a Bud­dha tat­too on the up­per arm but later awarded com­pen­sa­tion by the Supreme Court up­hold­ing that her fun­da­men­tal rights had been af­fected.

Be­ing an is­land na­tion helps. Many is­land states have pitched their tourism product on the warmth of the coun­try, its peo­ple, food and mu­sic. The lat­ter two make a world of a dif­fer­ence to the trav­eller.

For in­stance, dur­ing the three-month clo­sure of the airport ear­lier this year, there was a ca­lypso band play­ing at the de­par­ture lounge which was a wel­come di­ver­sion and helped pas­sen­gers while away the long hours in the de­par­ture lounge. Selfies were taken, chil­dren ran around and long hours quickly went past as vis­i­tors ab­sorbed the is­land’s cul­ture of mu­sic and song. Given that suc­cess, this should have been con­tin­ued. It is still not too late to re-in­tro­duce this, both in the ar­rival and de­par­ture lounges.

If one is to play on the psy­che of a trav­eller, first and last im­pres­sions mat­ter more than hard­ware (nice ho­tels, good food, vis­it­ing im­por­tant sites). They cre­ate an ev­er­last­ing im­pres­sion of a coun­try that is warm, friendly and wel­com­ing to vis­i­tors.

Vis­it­ing Hawaii some years back, all that I can re­mem­ber is the greet­ing at the airport: A smil­ing young woman gar­land­ing every visi­tor, with Hawai­ian mu­sic from a typ­i­cal ukulele in the back­ground. That was more than 30 years ago and that warm wel­come will al­ways re­main as the high point of a brief visit.

As an is­land na­tion, Sri Lanka is at an ad­van­tage over its re­gional peers in shar­ing the tourism pie. Is­lan­ders are of­ten con­sid­ered fun-lov­ing, easy-go­ing and laid-back, and lovers of mu­sic – and as the pithy Sri Lanka say­ing goes

(Even while the ship is sink­ing the peo­ple are par­ty­ing). Come sun or rain, Sri Lankans – most of the time – are happy is­lan­ders. And, a tot of toddy with a lit­tle ‘bite’ en­hances the mood!

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