Tuesday 15th August, 2023
The Professional Chef’s Association Sri Lanka (PCASL) made a fervent appeal over the weekend on behalf of everyone engaged in tourism. Pointing out that unfortunate instances abounded where foreign tourists faced exploitation at the hands of various persons, it stressed that the foreign guests helped boost the country’s economy and deserved to be treated fairly. Everything possible had to be done to make their stay here pleasant and memorable so that they would have something nice to say about Sri Lanka when they returned home, the PCASL said, noting that the country’s international visibility had to be increased significantly in a positive manner for it to attract foreign exchange, and tourism could be used for that purpose. One cannot but agree with the good chefs, who are trying to help the country get out of the current economic soup.
It is sad but true that foreign tourists become victims of various exploitative and discriminatory practices in this country. Tourism-related pricing is not uncommon in most countries, but it should not be applied haphazardly to everything, especially subpar products and services. Prices are usually jacked up arbitrarily when foreign tourists visit most restaurants. The PCASL has rightly pointed out that foreigners have to pay at least four times more than the normal price for a fish bun in a wayside eatery. Tuk-tuk rides are said to cost them more than those in chauffeur-driven luxury vehicles. Even thambili (king coconut) sellers overcharge tourists. The state is perhaps the worst culprit where the aforesaid sordid practices are concerned. Entrance fees for foreigners are unconscionably higher than those for local tourists at archaeological sites, wildlife parks, etc., where not even proper sanitary facilities are available.
Sri Lankans find themselves in the same predicament as foreign tourists where taxis are concerned. Some members of the trishaw fraternity have become a law unto themselves, and resort to unfair, and exploitative pricing practices. If one makes the mistake of getting into a tuk-tuk sans a meter without negotiating the fare in advance, one should be prepared to stand and deliver at the end of the trip, so to speak. Even trishaw meters are rigged, in most cases. Thankfully, a solution is available in many parts of the country; foreign tourists as well as Sri Lankans should be encouraged to use the platforms of ride-hailing companies. Booking rides through these outfits also helps ensure passengers’ safety. It is high time laws were brought in to regulate taxi fares and ensure the rights of passengers. Sri Lanka can adopt the new regulatory framework Singapore introduced, a few years ago, by ratifying the Point-to-Point (P2P) Passenger Transport Industry Bill. The Sri Lankan transport authorities ought to study these P2P laws and put in place a regulatory mechanism for the benefit of the Sri Lankan public and foreign tourists.
Most Sri Lankans are friendly and considerate towards foreign tourists, but all it takes to spoil a pot of milk is said to be a smidgeon of cow dung. A handful of unscrupulous elements in the garb of restaurant owners, taxi drivers and vendors can tarnish the image of the country as a tourist destination irreparably. Unless they are called to account, efforts being made to boost tourist arrivals and thereby shore up the country’s woefully low foreign currency reserves will remain a distant dream.
Effective regulatory mechanisms to prevent the overpricing of food products are already available. All restaurants are required to display price lists prominently so that customers can make informed decisions and avoid shocks at payment counters. If the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) carries out its duties and functions properly, the errant eatery owners, traders and others given to unlawful practices can be nabbed. It does not care to take legal action against even crooked bakers who sell short-weight bread and make a killing with impunity.
The need to foster a tourism-friendly culture, especially in a developing country, cannot be overstated. Every society has its share of crooks bent on exploiting others. But these elements have to be kept at bay if foreign tourists are not to be driven away. But this task is by no means duck soup, as chefs would say; it requires a lot of effort at every level of society.