Keeping faith

PATA Sri Lanka Chapter welcomed its youngest-ever chairperson in July – Dmitri Cooray, who at 30 years old is also operations manager at Jetwing Hotels. He reflects on one of the most turbulent times in the history of Sri Lankan tourism

What are your thoughts on the crisis Sri Lanka is in today?
Sri Lanka has gone through so many challenges in the past – the 30-year separatist war, tsunami and so many other challenges. But the last three years have been much worse, starting with the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks (in mid-2019), Covid-19 pandemic, and now the economic turmoil in the country.

The tourism industry has always taken the brunt of all of these natural and man-made disasters but the people are always resilient.

I am confident that with the return of stability to the country we will see an inflow of tourists, which is the need of the hour to gain foreign currency to meet the balance of payment requirements.

Which sector of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is hardest hit by these extended crises, and how is PATA aiding them?
The entire industry, from large hotels to individuals selling handicrafts on the street, has been affected over the past three years. As tourism has a trickle-down effect, when the going is good everyone benefits and when the going is bad everyone has to face the consequences.

PATA is part of an initiative called One Voice, which has all the main private sector bodies working together and voicing concerns of the industry to the government. These (communications) have helped in (securing supportive initiatives such as) moratorium extensions and so on.

You spoke of how tourists are the need of the hour for Sri Lanka. But can the country wait till stability returns for tourism to prop up the economy?
We need an inflow of tourists now. Every single dollar coming into the country will assist in stabilising the economy. This is a long journey and there is no easy fix, but if everyone works towards this goal within 18 to 24 months, we can come out of it.

What can be done now to enable and encourage tourists to return and bring that much-needed foreign exchange?
The recently concluded cricket series against Australia and Pakistan, held in Sri Lanka, earned us much needed positive international coverage which showed that the country is capable of hosting such sporting events without issues. We had tourists from Australia who enjoyed the cricket matches, and who went on to travel around Sri Lanka while sending positive messages around the world. Events such as these will boost tourist arrivals in the short term.

How are hotels and resorts maintaining staff morale during these trying times?
When business was absent, we got Jetwing associates engaged in other activities, such as agriculture. That gave most of them a lot of pride and many continued to establish home gardens as well.

We also maintained communications, giving them as much hope as we can. Engaging in religious activities to calm the mind was something else that we did.

Most properties gave staff extended leave so that they could spend more time with their family. During those challenging times it’s important to be with your loved ones.

Has the extended tourism crisis resulted in an outflow of workers?
Many properties have seen individuals leaving the industry, going overseas for better opportunities. They have job opportunities in Doha, Qatar, as many jobs have opened up to prepare for the FIFA World Cup later this year.

We do not mind people going to the Middle East or the Maldives as they gain valuable experience and return to serve the Sri Lanka tourism industry better. However, those who migrate to countries such as Australia, Canada and Europe will probably not come back, which is a loss for the country.

How are Sri Lanka properties dealing with the labour challenge? What is Jetwing doing?
Most properties have downsized over the last few years due to the lack of business. Existing employees are asked to multitask as well. It is essential to keep training the staff and encourage youngsters to join the industry.

Jetwing associates are highly trained, so they’re very much in demand. Sadly, we’ve lost a few of them and we hope they will return after a couple of years in the Middle East or the Maldives.

We believe in training new-bloods through Jetwing’s youth development programmes, and will continue to do so.

Let’s talk about your leadership at PATA Sri Lanka Chapter. What are your plans to take the chapter forward amid these trying times?
My plan is to get more youths involved and work closely with the main private sector bodies – the Tourist Hotels Association and the Sri Lanka Association of Travel Operators – in voicing our opinions and coming up with sustainable solutions for the betterment of the industry.

Are there any policy changes that need to be implemented in tourism given the present crisis?
What I hope for isn’t so much a policy change – I would like to see the tourism sector reducing consumption of imported food and beverage items and proudly serve Sri Lankan produce to travellers. Our objective is to contribute as much as possible to solve the balance of payments crisis here. If we can reduce imported content in our food offerings, that would reduce the quantum of foreign exchange required to sustain the industry.

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