So Sri Lanka, what­ever that means

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

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.

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