Manpower in Mannar

Creating more hotels and visitor accommodations in the overlooked north-west district of Sri Lanka is key to a government campaign to boost tourism in the region.

Creating more hotels and visitor accommodations in the overlooked north-west district of Sri Lanka is key to a government campaign to boost tourism in the region.

The Mannar Improving Competitiveness in Tourism (MIC Tourism) programme, which is backed by the Canadian government, highlights a plethora of little-known attractions that are not featured on the country’s main tourist circuits.

The campaign underscores the need to develop the essential infrastructure necessary to support the hoped-for upsurge in the number of visitors to Mannar—and that includes more mid- to high-end hotels.

Map of Attractions in Mannar, Sri Lanka

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It also spotlights the Achilles heel of the tourism and hospitality industries in Sri Lanka—the severe shortage of trained and qualified staff at all levels that are essential to maintain the quality of service that tourists expect and demand.

Udaya Karunaratne is the manager at Palmyrah House, a premiere tourist hotel midway along the peninsula north-west of Mannar. Referring to a newspaper article warning of a staffing ‘time bomb’, he said: “This hits the nail on the head.”

Palmyrah House has a policy of only recruiting locally in order to support the local community. But that is easier said than done, he says. “For one reason or another, young people in Mannar do not see a hotel career as an attractive proposition. And even when they do, they don’t stay, particularly young men who leave for the bright lights of Colombo or other major tourist areas.”

With female staff, the situation is not so bad. Says Udaya: “We pride ourselves on providing a ‘safe haven’ for young women so their families can confidently allow them to work here. But the bottom line is that there is a real problem finding the right caliber of staff. This will get even worse, at least in the short term, if this plan to build more hotels in Manner goes ahead.”

The newspaper article he referred to was written by Srilal Miththapala in The Island newspaper three years ago. He noted that, by 2018, the hotel industry island-wide “would need at least an additional 100,000-200,000 new staff… close upon 50,000 new, well-trained staff every year for the next three years”.

He warned: “There is an urgent need for all stakeholders to get together along with the government to formulate a crash programme to provide solutions to this impending ‘time bomb’ that the industry will have to face in the near future.”

That future is now, and there is little evidence that the situation has improved since that report was written. In fact, according to many industry observers, it is getting worse.

When tourism minister John Amaratunga recently launched MIC Tourism, he noted that there are fewer than 500 hotel rooms in the whole Mannar region, with only 52 having been added over the past eight years.

But now, he said, “We see immense opportunity for tourism development in the Mannar district, while also creating income generation opportunities through home-stay facilities, hotels, recreation and transportation.”

He stressed on the need to improve basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water, but it was actually getting there—primarily the lack of commercial airports to handle tourists—that was his main concern.

Thus, he said, the Palali Airport at Jaffna, the northernmost point on the island and a two-hour drive from Mannar (as opposed to seven hours from Bandaranaike International), will be developed to handle more tourists.

Built originally by the British during WWII, it later served as Sri Lanka’s second major domestic airport before being taken over by the Sri Lankan Air Force during the country’s 30-year civil war.

Redeveloping the airport to serve the tourism and hospitality industries will be a major boost for the MIC Tourism project, the main driver of which is the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

WUSC exists primarily to improve education, employment and empowerment opportunities for youth around the world. In Sri Lanka, it collaborates with the National Chamber of Commerce and The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka.

The association’s president, Sanath Ukwatte, speaking at the launch of MIC Tourism, said “It is the duty of everyone within the tourism industry to support great initiatives like MIC to popularise tourism in the country.”

He said: “This project’s objectives and purpose are clearly vital in terms of national priorities today,” adding that now is a good time to develop the Mannar and northern regions as all-year-round destinations.

He also touched on the issue of staffing, which he implied has bedeviled the tourism and hospitality industries throughout the country for years, namely the lack of young people who see them as viable career options.

He said: “The tourism industry has a goal to create 100,000 new jobs by 2020. So the government alone cannot achieve this goal. I believe we all should participate together to achieve this.”

He said that “WUSC and its partners hope to attract continued investment and business development in the region. This, in turn, will help increase opportunities for employment”.

Notable attractions in the Mannar district are the 400-year-old shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, Wilpathu National Park, historic temples and kovils, colonial-era Portugese and Dutch Forts, and Adam’s Bridge, the fabled link with the Indian mainland across the Palk Strait.

Others include the Taiaimannar lighthouse and pier built by the British in 1915, Talaimannar and Keeri beaches—two of the finest in the country, the Vankalai bird sanctuary, and the Dorich house.

Kite-surfing is also a rapidly expanding ‘adventure activity’ that is attracting growing numbers of ‘high-sensation seekers’, particularly among Australians who increasingly see Sri Lanka as an attractive alternative to Bali, hitherto their favoured holiday destination.

WUSC Country Director Esther McIntosh, speaking at the MIC Tourism launch, said that the project was a “key milestone for the whole Northern Province”.

She noted that success will very much depend on the active support of the private sector, in particular the hotel industry, and that WUSC is ready to help with strategic planning to support this.

She added, “We will support training and capacity building among youth who will be of much use for tourism development in Mannar.”

Meanwhile, technical assistance is a vital area for capacity building. WUSC helped bring chefs from Canada to assist hotels in the South and customer service in the North and the East.

The lack of hotel accommodation in Mannar, and by extension the surrounding region, is highlighted by TripAdvisor, which lists only 21 properties, most of which are small family guest houses for budget travellers. Meanwhile, Booking.com lists 15 properties, Agoda 9, and Hotels.com only 3 ‘best’ hotels.

Underscoring all of this is what might be described as the ‘elephant in the room’, which is hotel association president Sanath Ukwatte’s and the WUSC’s reference to the lack of skilled employees, the bedrock of the hospitality and tourism industries.

Although this has been known for years, so far, there has been little concrete progress in addressing the underlying problem, which is that too few young Sri Lankans see a future in it, either as a means to earn a living or as a way of life.

In short, low wages, long hours, lack of job security and the self-discipline needed to be nice to strangers who are often rude and obnoxious is not exactly an attractive proposition.

Talaimannar Lighthouse

Talaimannar Lighthouse

The Island piece warned that “there is an urgent need for all stakeholders to get together along with the government to formulate a crash programme to provide solutions to this impending ‘time bomb’ that the industry will have to face in the near future”.

Srilal Miththapala noted that “international tourism today is changing radically, and the basic ‘hotel experience’ is no longer good enough. The whole visitor experience is what matters, and needs to be exceptional in today’s fiercely competitive international arena”.

Hence, it is obvious, that the hospitality industry needs to breed new human capital, with a vast array of soft skills and professionalism, to be competitive and be successful in this changing environment.

He stressed that while the Internet and technology increasingly dominate the tourism and hospitality landscapes, “warm personalized customer service, professionally delivered, will never be replaced by any amount of technology”. That means, the right staff doing the right job in the right place.

He concluded then that “around 400,000-500,000 staff at different levels will be required by 2018 for the Sri Lanka tourism industry”.

Another major problem, says Udaya at Palmyrah House, is the rigid and unbending bureaucracy that hoteliers and everyone else in the hospitality industry are forced to deal with every day.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. For every person in government trying to promote the tourism industry, there is another jobsworth creating unnecessary obstacles. Dealing with all this is like wading through tar.”

So where does all this leave the Mannar project?

Udaya believes that, in the long term, it might bring benefits, particularly regarding staffing. He says: “If the big hotel chains build properties here, it will certainly help raise the level of awareness locally that the industry can provide good employment opportunities. And with the big guns up here, it might also help put pressure on the bureaucracy to get their act together and give us the support we need to properly live up to tourists’ expectations.”

However, long-term optimism needs to be accompanied by short-term action. If projects like the Mannar initiative are to succeed, steps need to be taken to tackle the staffing crisis, and soon.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4