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13 Aug, 2007

Sri Lanka Hosts 2007 World Tourism Day to Polish Image

COLOMBO – Preparations are under way in Sri Lanka to host this year’s World Tourism Day on 27 September 2007, an international event that tourism executives hope will help offset what is shaping up as another calamitous year for the island nation’s industry.

This year’s Tourism Day theme is “Tourism Opens Doors for Women,” a campaign that highlights the industry’s huge job-creation opportunities for women, celebrates their achievements in tourism and supports the UN’s 3rd Millennium Development Goal: Promoting Gender Equality and Women Empowerment.

With leaders of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) set to attend the high-profile events on that day in Colombo, the Sri Lankan tourism industry badly needs the shot in the arm.

Although arrivals in 2006 rose by a marginal 1.9% to 559,603, they have slumped in the first half of 2007, falling 24.4% to 224,791. The only saving-grace was arrivals from Eastern Europe, including Russia, which rose by 49% to 11,104, partially offsetting steep declines from all other markets, including Thailand.

Chairman of the Sri Lankan Tourist Board Mr. Renton de Alwis said he hoped the UNWTO celebrations would reflect the country in a more positive light.

He noted that in line with the Day’s women-focussed theme, the UNWTO has launched an online photo contest to show women playing leadership roles at all levels of tourism. One activity is an Online Photo contest to highlight women empowerment and gender equality in action. To participate please click: http://www.youtourist.travel/gallery.aspx .

Deadline for participation is 30 August 2007. The 12 selected winners will be announced in Sri Lanka and exhibited during the UNWTO General Assembly in Colombia, 22-29 November, and at UNWTO headquarters in Madrid.

Chairman of the Sri Lankan Hotel Association Mr Hiran Cooray says that the 20-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency has deprived the country of its phenomenal potential of becoming a major South Asian power.

“Our strategic location at the crossroads of Asia-Pacific shipping lanes, well educated workforce and rich cultural heritage could have easily made Sri Lanka into a major force for shipping, finance, banking and tourism,” he said. “However, the diversion of large budgets into defence has deprived us of valuable opportunities to invest further in infrastructure, education and tourism.”

However, he says that looking on the bright side, the industry has able to steer clear of mass tourism and focus on niche markets like health and wellness, especially ayurvedic and herbal treatments, Buddhist and religious tourism and ecotourism. As a result, nearly all the new products are designed to serve this market niche.

Mr Cooray, whose full-time job is Deputy Chairman of Jetwing hotels, cited the 24-villa Vil Uyana project opened by his group near the Sigiriya UNESCO World Heritage Site earlier this year.

Built on 25 acres of otherwise degraded forest land, the hotel (whose name means Water Garden), Jetwing Hotels followed the model of conservation agencies such as the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to create “a fusion between a nature reserve and a luxury hotel.”

“We had over 20 acres of barren land in Sigiriya with building rights. There were also a few acres of paddy land which could not be built on.”

He said the group worked with prominent Sri Lankan environmental architect Sunela Jayawardene and scientist Chris Panabokke and a team of engineers, landscapists, naturalists to change the entire landsite, overcoming significant local hurdles, including procuring 21 governmental permissions without paying off a single official.

“We had a golden rule. No water was ever to be taken off the public irrigation network. We had to harvest, from rain, every drop of water we will use. We must never be in competition for utilisation of water with the local farmers,” he said.

Inspired by ancient traditional irrigation marvels, Mr. Cooray described the result of water storage reservoirs, linkage channels, weirs, sluice gates and spills/turn offs as being “the first hydraulic undertaking of this magnitude by a hotel chain.”

With water came life, both natural greenery and wildlife such as crocodiles, otters, kingfishers, etc.

Once the project was well under way, “we turned our focus to the people of the area.” Having received the approval of the local priests, Jetwing Hotels selected an initial batch of 120 youths, primarily school leavers, rural boys and girls.

“There is a lot of youth unemployment in Sri Lanka and many of them land up migrating to the cities,” said Mr Cooray. “Initially the students were taught to read, write and speak English.

“Following a Personality Profile Test held after two months, students were selected to be trained in front office, housekeeping, food & beverage and kitchen. They were also trained in the rich cultural history of Sigiriya and neighboring Dambulla and introduced to Sri Lanka’s amazing biodiversity.”

After final tests, 50 young boys and girls were offered fulltime jobs. Mr Cooray said the site is also available for wildlife researchers keen to probe the region’s rich nature, culture and anthropological assets.

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