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10 Sep, 2021

R.I.P. Lakshman Ratnapala: The man who put “Asia” into the Pacific Asia Travel Association

Lakshman Ratnapala, 82, the first Asian President and CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, passed away on 08 Sept 2021 after a brief illness related to Parkinson’s Disease. He is survived by his wife Barbara. The couple had no children.

Born Nihal Lakshman in the Sri Lankan village of Veyangoda, Mr Ratnapala studied for 12 years at the St Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia, a prestigious boarding school. After further studies at the Law College in Colombo, he started his career as a reporter at the then leading Sinhala language newspapers, the “Lankadipa”.

He then did a brief stint with the Shell oil company before joining the Ceylon Tourist Board and moving to the United States as Sri Lanka’s Director for Tourism in the Americas based in New York City. He joined PATA in January 1980 as Director of Chapter Services and spearheaded the phenomenal growth of the association’s chapter network.

Under the mentorship of Ken Chamberlain, his boss at the time, Mr Ratnapala significantly boosted PATA’s profile and presence in Asia. He set up the PATA Asia Division in 1987, organized the first PATA Education Authority in 1988, launched the first PATA Chapters World Congress in 1989 and established the PATA Intelligence Centre the same year.

He also facilitated a decentralisation of PATA’s operations to reach new markets in China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, the Russian Federation and South Africa. Under his watch, a Europe Divisional Office was opened in Monaco and membership dues frozen for four consecutive years.

He was appointed CEO and President in 1992 and left in June 1997 after leading two of the most important events in PATA history, the 1996 annual conference in Thailand which led to the entry of Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam as members followed by the inauguration of the Mekong Tourism Forum, and the 1997 annual conference in Beijing, the first after China’s membership in PATA.

He saw the Beijing conference as his biggest triumph. In his own words, “That was when delegates from three back-to-back PATA events — the 9th Chapters Congress, the 19th Travel Mart, and the 46th Annual Conference, all of which had broken attendance records — gathered at the China World Hotel, Beijing, for the spectacular opening ceremony of the Conference on 21st April 1997. Including host committee participants, total attendance was about 3,500, with attendees overflowing to the hallways beyond.”

Following images have been reproduced from his first book, Flickering Fortunes, published in 2016.

The planning process for PATA’s HQ move to Asia also began under his watch.

He stayed on in San Francisco and spent his life writing his memoirs and doing consultancy projects. Ill health in his final years forced him to move back to Sri Lanka, although he did his valiant best to remain as mentally active as he could.

In a landmark 10-minute speech at the World Tourism Organisation General Assembly in Bali in 1993, he uttered these memorable words, “It is interesting to note that we in the travel industry gather frequently at meetings, conferences, conventions, seminars and workshops. But, after all the talking is done, speeches are read and articles written, the actual follow-up action that needs to be done takes a long time to accomplish. Meanwhile the world marches on and only those who have the will to succeed, get down to the important tasks of doing something about what they speak.

“We in tourism are many way dreamers. Unlike other people who dream in black and white, we tend to dream in technicolour. And we package the dreams of other people and sell them so that all may experience the reality of their dreams. This by itself places a heavy responsibility on us. But it is only by fulfilling this responsibility to the travellers, investors and host communities that our nations prosper and the world becomes a global village of understanding and mutual respect.”

It is thanks to him that I coined the phrase, “Those who sell dreams for a living have great difficulty coping with nightmares.”

Personally, I consider Lakshman Ratnapala one of the greatest leaders of Asia-Pacific tourism. Rest in Peace, my dear friend. I am proud to have known and worked with you to advance the cause.