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Don't treat locals as second class guests!

For many years, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was beset by rumours of discrimination against local tourists. Many of these complaints mainly originated from the island’s coastal regions, where locals were refused services from restaurants and hotels. However, the discrimination of local tourists and the highly offensive ‘foreigners only’ policies vanished in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed. The ensuing travel restrictions and closing of borders stopped international arrivals, and as the country went into lockdown, in mid-March 2020, it brought the entire tourism value chain to a halt.


The first signs of a revival began in late June 2020, where relaxing of the lockdown and inter-district travel restrictions enabled hotels to open…all thanks to domestic tourism. Time and again, after every upheaval that Sri Lanka has experienced thus far – be it the bombings that regularly occurred during the country’s 30-year war against terrorists, the tsunami in 2004, and so on, it has been domestic tourism that has proved to be resilient in times of crisis and the saviour for an immediate and positive economic impact to the hospitality industry.


However, now that the foreign tourist arrivals are gradually returning to its anticipated numbers, so are the discriminatory practices against local tourists, with some hotels quickly forgetting how patronage by local tourists during all those setbacks, helped keep them afloat, until the sector came fully back to business… from ground zero. As evidenced by various complaints posted on social media, discriminatory treatment encountered by locals has sadly resurfaced.


One such incident doing the rounds is of this person, who wanting to take his wife for a buffet lunch out of Colombo, on the Poya (full moon) holiday, calling a well known hotel in Kalutara to make a table booking. He was told that they could come to the hotel, but they could not partake of the lunch buffet as that was reserved for foreigners only. Terminating the call with a ‘Thank you’, he went on to narrated his unsavory experience to all and sundry, across his various WhatsApp groups, whilst naming the hotel in the process. Some of his friends advised him to write a Google or TripAdvisor review as well.


This incident brought to mind something similar that I experienced at the dinner buffet of an upscale hotel near Trincomalee, in 2018. Placing an order for some food prepared at an ‘action’ station, I sat at my table for awhile, and returned to check on it…just in time to notice the chef giving my order to a foreigner who had arrived long after me having placed my request. Naturally, I expressed my disappointment (discretely of course, without any raised voices or profanities). This resulted in profuse apologies been tendered, ‘extras’ provided, and a follow-up call from the hotel’s head office  expressing regret for the unsavory encounter, whilst assuring me that it was not one of their brand values and that the employee concerned would be dealt with. I recommended that the employee be made aware on how to treat every guest equally.


Getting back to the hotel that barred the Sri Lankan from its lunch buffet; if the hotel was fully occupied and could not cope with non-resident customers for lunch, the hotel employee could have been better advised to say that the buffet is ‘sold-out’. Let’s be clear, for the employee to openly dissuade the caller and his wife from having lunch is because it was sanctioned by the hotel management. On the contrary, if the hotel was only encouraging foreigners to lunch, then it’s highly unethical. Such malpractices in the industry create inequality, in which Sri Lankan people become second-class citizens in their own country.


If there’s one thing that gets my goat, it’s when Sri Lankans treat Sri Lankans as second-class. I’m not aware of any other country in the world where such treatment occurs among locals. Some establishments seem to conveniently discard the locals who helped them keep their doors open during tough times. However, things aren’t forgotten so easily. Thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, such blatant acts of segregation and discrimination can be captured and retrieved for a very long time.


Sri Lanka’s hospitality sector may do well to remember that domestic tourists provided 64% of spending at the time of the end of the civil war in 2009 (World Tourism and Travel Council). The fact that some level of domestic tourism continued through the conflict years helped facilitate this rapid expansion in the past years. Do not dismiss domestic tourism so easily. Tourism in Sri Lanka is still at the mercy of seasonality.


So, let this be a friendly request from me to treat everyone equally - because you never know when you might need help from the local community.


Ashraaq Wahab – Director of Marketing/Sales and Technical - Hospitality Sri Lanka, Automotive  Journalist, Marketer, Photographer and Writer, who enjoys penning his thoughts, insights and ideas on a variety of topics.



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