In Sri Lanka, one sector that featured prominently in the post-war rapid growth was the tourism sector. The arrival of tourists increased rapidly and passed the elusive one million mark in 2012 and increased further in 2013. Consequently, the tourist earnings also increased and now the sector occupies the position as the third largest foreign exchange earner to the country after overseas remittances and textiles and apparel exports. What is your overview of the current stage of the tourism development in Sri Lanka?
The tourism industry right now in Sri Lanka is at a very aggressive stage and we had reach to our million tourists as soon as the conflicts finished; now we are concentrated in the aggressive market of Sri Lanka, especially in those markets where we feel that have a large potential such as China and India. Those are the largest markets I think that have huge potential; also we want to make stronger our position in the existent markets: mainly the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe, and then we want to concentrate on new markets such as the U.S. and South Africa, and also some countries in the middle east which have a lot of potential. So certainly we are looking for 1.5 million tourists this year, and 2.5 million of tourists by 2016. I certainly feel that the numbers are going to increase much more also we have very large budgets for tourist promotion and now we have an umbrella organization with Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lankan Tea Board to promote Sri Lanka in a join manner, so all the synergies can be brought together. Each organization comes from different Ministries, but I bring them under the same marketing so we can show our knowledge and we can share the synergies and platforms together so we can get more investors in Sri Lanka.
You are Targeting 2.5 million tourists by 2016. It is contended that the current 26,700 rooms should be increased to about 50,000 rooms by 2016 if you are to accommodate the 2.5 million tourists that are targeted for 2016.There are reasons to believe that the estimate of 50,000 rooms should accommodate the peak season tourists during November to January. What are the main incentives the Government is going to give or it is giving to attract those investments to the sector?
I was also the Minister of Investment Promotion from 2007 to 2010 so I know the investment package they give. In Sri Lanka we give a tremendous amount incentives for investors. We give 4 million dollars and the tax exemption for different amounts of investment so our capital variation is of 100%; that means that all the profits you make you can take them back to your home country. If there is a new brand hotel coming out the investment shop gives all so the cost of building the hotel or any other project will instantly grow up.
The current contribution of tourism to GDP is close to an average of 2%. All these challenges among others need to be addressed on a fast track basis if Sri Lanka is to make the tourism sector an above 5% of GDP contributor to the economy after 2016. What are the main pillar and policies of the master plan of the Government to achieve this percentage?
I think that the currently target is principally Asia, but we had put together a team now that is operating to bring 2000 people from different countries, we are running two different airlines sectors for them so there are many lines that are coming out but we will see if that is the best for Sri Lanka. We want to work properly as country, and that will happen in the next future.
If the numbers double then from the total GDP of tourism there will be a target of 6% to 2016, we may not achieve that by 2016 but at least it could be to 2018, there is a lot of investment coming in from the tourism sector and surely there is a lot of people taking benefits of this. When a tourist comes to Sri Lanka and goes to a restaurant he leaves 1$US for the waitress, 1$US it is nothing for the tourist but for the waitress it is 134 rupees and that is an indirect benefit.
Which kind of tourists are you targeting: high-end, middle or the lower-end?
The U.S. market it is new to us and I think that we should target high-end and middle people.
We want to have some new techniques, conventions, forums but we also want to preserve our traditional business.
Sri Lanka has a really good infrastructure in comparison to some Asian neighbors. What are the main needs in infrastructure for tourism sector?
I think that the infrastructures of the hotels are brilliant, some of the higher hotels are the most beautiful in the world and they are 6 stars. There is an amazing amount of 6 stars boutique hotels in Sri Lanka and the investors are coming to these, the target is coming, so all these brands in Sri Lanka are looked very positive. So the middle-class Indian people who come here spend a lot of money and the same with the Asian people and the advantage that we have is that from India to Sri Lanka are 2 hours of travel the same from Asia, so this market is more advantageous than the U.S. market but certainly I want to get Sri Lanka into U.S. radar and then there will be a market from Europe, Caribe and even South America. We are sure to be having all the connectivity especially with Europe and Los Angeles.
How would you like Sri Lanka to be perceived internationally?
The message than we want to give is that we are a democratic country where there is respect for all human beings and obviously because of the conflicts we had terrorists problems in Sri Lanka and we were not available to reach our potential but now that the conflicts are over we have the chance to build Sri Lanka with all communities and to move forward very positively.
You are known in the country as a man of honesty and integrity, and a disciplined character. Could you please tell us more about your personal and professional background and how did you become the Minister of Tourism and Sport of Sri Lanka?
My father was a presidential candidate of my country and he belonged to a party in the U.K. and also in the U.S. but he was assassinated in 1994 just two weeks before the elections and probably he would have won if he was alive, so after he died I came into politics and I got myself into the Parliament and then I became State Minister and now I am a fully Minister so my progression has being steady.
I traveled a lot to other countries so I know how to talk with people and how to treat them so we can get things done. This is a nice country and we have a lot of capable people so we want to create an environment in Sri Lanka where everybody is giving recognition and merits for their hard work and ability but we still want to refine this; the 90% of the Sri Lankan people can read and write and certainly the system is very good and the health system comes from U.S. so it is a very good one, you just go to the hospital and if you need surgery of anything you get it. The Human Development Index it is also very high in Sri Lanka.
What would be your final message to our readers, regarding to the market and the opportunities in Sri Lanka, or what would you say to people who have historically been fed negative and have been misinformed regarding the country?
Anybody in Los Angeles who reads this message has to certainly come because this is one of most beautiful countries in Asia and here the environment is based in hospitality and I think that you would become enriched because of our Buddhism. There is much more in here than the beach and the sand so I think that here is a very civilized system and our health system is very good because of our oils and treatments which are very good for your body. There are a lot of things that people of Los Angeles and the rest of U.S. can learn from my country.