Following is the speech delivered by the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President Anura Lokuhetty at the signing of the MoU between THASL and the Vocational Training Authority (VTA)
Tourism, the largest civil industry in the world which generated more than one trillion US dollars, is second only to the oil industry in terms of revenue.
Tourism revenue in the world is 10% of GNP. When considering the employment opportunities in the world, the tourism sector is by far the largest employment provider. As per the UNWTO statistics, employment in the tourism industry is approximately 300 million, which means 7% of the total employees in the world. When you consider the tourism arrivals to our region, last year it shows a growth of 13.5% from 180 million to 204 million.
Potential of tourism
Considering the strength and potential of our beautiful country and the socioeconomic significance of tourism, we are glad that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s manifesto, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ has envisioned the future Sri Lanka as a ‘dynamic global hub’. The economic prospects for the nation’s post-conflict development hinge primarily on a few ‘thrust’ industries. Among them, tourism has the potential to create the highest impact all-round.
Taking all these matters into consideration, the President has set a target of achieving 2.5 million tourists by 2016. This is definitely an achievable task. When we consider last year’s arrivals of 654,000 tourists, you may feel that it is a very ambitious target. I would like to emphasise on the fact that this is not a big task provided we concentrate and focus on achieving the target and get ourselves aligned with all the requirements for this achievement.
I would like to give a few examples in the region for us to realise how other countries have fared in the last year in terms of tourist arrivals to their countries: Malaysia 24 million, Thailand 16 million, Singapore 11.3 million, Vietnam five million, Cambodia 2.5 million and our immediate neighbouring country, Maldives, achieved almost 800,000 tourists.
If we look at the 1994 figures of those countries, they have actually improved more than 400- 500%, whereas we have improved only by about 60%. One reason for this is the unfavourable situation for the development of tourism which prevailed in the country.
We are happy to note that the outlook for the industry has now completely turned around after nearly three decades of operating in extremely challenging circumstances amidst a military conflict.
As per the presidential target of expected 2.5 million arrivals in 2016, there will be employment opportunities for at least 500,000 persons. When we consider the current direct and indirect employment, this is about 150,000. This clearly indicates that there will be additional jobs created for at least 350,000 by 2016.
However, I must also emphasise on the fact that even when we consider the current employment of 150,000, most of them were trained by the hotels in association with the National Apprenticeship Board and SLITHM. The majority of the people in the industry were trained by the hotels after recruiting them as trainees. So, today we are very glad and thankful to VTA Chairman Dammika Hewapathirana and particularly Paneetha Rathnayake for having identified the necessity of taking timely action to train the required number of staff in association with THSAL. I am sure that they have taken these initiatives under the able guidance of Minister Dulles Alahapperuma and Deputy Minister Duminda Dissanayake.
The tourism industry requires more contact between the employees and the guests than any other industry. Tourism requires much more practical than theoretical training to ensure that customers are satisfied with the services. As Sri Lankans and Asians are well known in the world for being hospitable people, tourists who visit the Asian region naturally expect a higher standard of services than from a hotel in Europe. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary for us to take adequate measures to be ready to receive 2.5 million tourists by 2016.
Quality training and professionalism
Considering the competitive nature of today’s tourism industry, quality training together with professionalism of staff will have a major impact on the competitiveness of the destination. One major error I see in the minds of some people in the industry is confusing ‘hospitality’ with ‘service professionalism’. While certainly, without a doubt, a warm smile is always welcome, the smile in itself is not adequate in today’s competitive climate. Travellers expect high quality and efficient service standards, which no amount of ‘hospitality’ alone can substitute for. Therefore, hospitality today has to be tempered and augmented with good professionalism as well.
In the Sri Lankan context, training and development of the staff in the tourism industry is a complex task as it is not only job skills that need to be developed and inculcated, but professionalism and to do something to perfection has to be ‘taught’. The Sri Lankan way of feeling bad to say ‘sorry’ and to accept ‘anything as good enough’ needs to be adequately addressed prior to any technical training to the staff.
In developed countries, basic on-the-job skills training is the only input required for the staff, as in those countries, culture itself is formulated around perfection. However, there is a large cultural division in what is comprehended as service quality in an affluent Western culture, compared with what the average Sri Lankan suburban and village population thinks. This means that we have to often provide on-the job skills training in addition to other fundamental training in other aspects. On a positive note, our people are extremely hospitable, more than most others, which is an extremely positive advantage in comparison to most other tourist destinations.
‘Mediocre is acceptable’ mentality
The burden in the human resource field in the tourism industry today is the ‘mediocre is acceptable’ mentality. Very often staff perform less than perfectly, accepting lower service levels and do not strive to deliver the best. This could be the result of the bad period we have undergone for almost three decades and as a result we have not been able to attract suitable staff for the hotel industry.
The lack of enthusiasm of youth joining the industry has resulted in our service standards in hotels deteriorating beyond what we had in the past in terms of service standards. Due to this factor and various other factors, we were attracting lower standards of tourists to Sri Lanka. Today we are not a cheap destination anymore, when you compare the rates demanded by the hoteliers with the other destinations in the region. Therefore, it has become absolutely necessary for a high level of professionalism to be brought in to the industry by attracting suitable staff and training them properly to deliver the high standard of service expected by the tourist, who pays a much higher rate than before.
Another factor that needs to be considered is to bring more professionalism to the industry to overcome the cultural disadvantage on the quality ethic in our day-to-day work. Getting it right the first time is often not considered important and re-work is often the norm. Therefore, we have to bring in a new culture to the tourism industry by having more training programmes, not only in terms of technical aspects but considering all aspects. We have to find methods to drive the importance of perfection into the minds of hotel employees.
In this endeavour, I am sure, as great partnerships can achieve great things, the Vocational Training Authority together with The Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka has a major role to play to find and suitably trained staff to meet up with the future demands of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka.
I believe it is a good time for policymakers in education to give serious consideration to aligning the education system in this country to cater to the development of resources and identified industries that could really make a difference in developing the country’s economy. In this direction, it is required to change the perception of society, which considers only those employed in a few identified professions as professionals.
We all know how important the tourism industry is with regard to developing Sri Lanka’s economy in a sustainable manner. I don’t think there is any necessity for me to elaborate any further on this. In terms of the multiplier effect tourism has, it has a major impact on the economy more than any other industry in Sri Lanka. When we look at Middle Eastern countries like Dubai, having realised the diminishing nature of their resources such as oil, they have created manmade wonders to attract tourists as they know very well that there is no other industry that could generate as many job opportunities and economic development.
When you look at our major foreign exchange earner, ‘foreign employment,’ this has created so many social problems. The youth and the available workforce has not been utilised adequately for the development of resources of Sri Lanka. The only way to create such large numbers of employment opportunities in this country would be through tourism and therefore the President’s target of reaching four million tourists by 2020 and thereby creating one million jobs would be the ideal solution for our country at this moment of time.
If you generate these one million jobs and consider the dependence on the one million people, around 20% of Sri Lanka’s population will be dependent on tourism. This will further avoid our beloved brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters from going abroad for unskilled jobs, thereby creating major social problems due to the breakup of families.
Other major industries which are instrumental in earning the much-required foreign revenue would not be as sustainable as development of tourism in Sri Lanka, particularly due to the fact that in most of these industries, 90% of raw materials are imported and finished goods are exported.
Considering all this, we, the professionals in the industry, could be happy that we are engaged in one of the most suitable industries for Sri Lanka’s economic development. Having said this, I think it is our total responsibility, as industry professionals, to ensure support to the initiatives taken by the Vocational Training Authority by having identified tourism industry as the biggest employer in Sri Lanka in time to come.
I wish and expect all industry professionals to take serious note of the necessity of improving the human resource factor in the hotel industry by conducting more and more on-the-job training and making them aware of the competition that is faced by the industry. In order to facilitate this requirement, we on our part, the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, has been incorporated as a company, named ‘The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka’. Now the association has a full-time CEO and we are in a position to assist the industry in their needs by coordinating existing resources and activities within the sector to meet current and future skills needs.
Giant step by VTA
I consider this as a giant step taken by the VTA at a time when 2.5 million tourists are expected to Sri Lanka in 2016. Furthermore, as per the Presidential target of receiving four million tourists in 2020, there will be employment opportunities for at least one million people. Therefore, we are very glad to be associated with the VTA and we would be very happy to assist them in developing the curriculum and also providing them with the required expertise to conduct those programmes and the necessary practical training required by the industry. We are pleased to provide them with visiting lecturers by utilising our regional associations.
In addition to training new employees, I also suggest that current employees need to be given a certification after an evaluation test according to their number of years of service in respective fields. This will help to bring in more professionalism and recognition to the employees as well as to the tourism industry. This certification can be done with the assistance of VTA, SLITHM, SLTDA and Ministry of Tourism together with THASL. This will help to recognise those experienced staff and to create dignity of work and thereby get more recognition to the hotel employees as professionals.
One of the major problems faced by the tourism industry today is to attract employees to the hotel industry as every parent wants their children to be doctors, engineers, lawyers or IT professionals, rather than become hoteliers. You will agree with me that this situation has arisen due to the fact that they are totally unaware of the benefits of getting into one of the largest industries in the world.
To the best of my knowledge, the Vocational Training Authority was established by the President when he was the Minister of Labour, ably assisted by Basil Rajapaksa who is currently the Minister of Economic Development. I had the opportunity of opening the first Hotel School at the Kalutara Training College somewhere in 1995, under the guidance of the Vocational Training Institute at that time.
As we all know, we have had a very unfavourable situation in the country for almost 30 years. However, if you look at Cambodia, which underwent a similar situation, soon after the war they experienced massive growth. They receive almost 2.5 million tourists today, having started with 118,000 in 1994, whilst we were getting 392,000. If you look at the Maldives, they got only 10,000 tourists in 1972 when we were getting only 56,000. Therefore, these figures will confirm to you that getting 2.5 million tourists is definitely an achievable task.
With the target of serving 2.5 million tourists by 2016 and the growing importance and demand for trained manpower, it must be noted that many private sector institutions have ventured in to this field by offering education in this field. As compared to reputed institutes which have taken up this mantle quite a long while ago, the spurt of many smaller institutes claiming to offer courses in hotel management has led to a situation which dilutes the quality of output in comparison to the better turnout from the recognised institutes such as SLITHM and VTA. Therefore, it is necessary to monitor such mushrooming institutions.
While everyone is moving briskly around trying to develop infrastructure, building more hotel rooms, we appreciate greatly the initiatives taken by the VTA to bridge the gap between the job demand and availability by getting into human resource development in the tourism sector, which is going to be the major growth engine of Sri Lankan economy.
I, as the President of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, wished to place our great appreciation and pledge to ensure that our entire membership will certainly help the initiatives taken by us by signing this MoU to make this a fruitful exercise.
‘Success in business requires training and discipline and hard work. But if you’re not frightened by these things, the opportunities are just as great today as they ever were.’