The letter T in travel and tourism

Last week my mind’s eye took on a story I read in the newspapers and also viewed on TV news the same night. Transport Minister Kumara Welgama had become a commuter by train. He had given up the comfort of his official transport on that particular morning to join the ranks of the many millions of other Sri Lankans who take public transport to get to work, visit friends and relatives, go on pilgrimages, and take recreational tours during school and other holidays with family.

Public transport
There are also the free independent foreign tourists (FITs) that take modes of public transport when traveling around. Although the numbers may be insignificant now, the potential for most visitors to take on such travel is huge. This is an observation I make assessing the number of visitors that use public transport at other similar tourist destinations in the region. Of course, there is a correlation between the standard and quality of facilities available and the travelers and tourists (local and foreign) who use public transport. There is also a positive correlation between such travel and benefits to communities for these are visitors who seek to actively interact with local people, buying their products, and experiencing local lifestyles.

Another benefit of enhancing the standards and quality of public transport is its pull in taking individual vehicles off our roads. Those who now can afford the comforts of using their own vehicles would then be able to shift to enjoying collective comforts like all other Sri Lankans, while also making major savings on cost of resources for themselves and for the nation at large.

Potent combination
The focus on improving the quality of our public transport system began with another dynamic individual, former Transport Minister Dullas Alahapperuma. Beginning from his era, we now see a genuine effort to develop mass transportation of both passengers and goods. He had a team that did much to get a system that had hit rock bottom in its efficacy and quality, off the ground. I mean the road, rail, and water transport systems for travelers in general.

Minister Alahapperuma had a General Manager Railways in his team, who is an academic from the Colombo University with specialization in the subject. That perhaps is a first in the history of railways in this country. What is more interesting is that he and his wife were regular commuters to and from work, on the Panadura-Colombo route. That was his way of life, and he took pride in the fact that his travel by train has helped him better understand where the needs are and how they could be met, both as a transport specialist and then as GM-Railways.

Today, Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, the then GM-Railways is the Transport Ministry Secretary and forms part of the top team with Minister Welgama. Such combinations are potent and augar well for our future, and we need more and more of such team work of strategists and doers to make things happen.

Efficacy and quality
That brings me directly to the ‘T’ words I mentioned in my column title, in relation to travel and tourism. My objective is to demonstrate that the success of our tourism industry is not only about the ‘T’s on its own name, but on several other basic ‘T’ words that goes to make it work. Public transport is the most economical and most experiential form of travel and is also the mode with least negative impact on our environment. That is the first ‘T’ that forms the base of efficient facilitation for travel and tourism.

The second ‘T’ word I suggest are toilets. For, good clean toilets are a basic necessity for travelers and tourists, wherever and whenever they travel. Most who take public transport have the awful experience of having to face hardship in using public toilets which in most cases are in terrible shape. Some choose to call them comfort centers (CCs), but in my back to basics approach, I will continue to call them toilets for that is what they are. That is not to let nomenclature mar the real issues we must focus on. My own recent experience, in traveling by bus from Matara to Hungama was revealing. The public toilet (no it was not a CC) at the Matara bus terminus, had a caretaker at its entrance charging five rupees per entry. But it was only clean in its collection at the gate and the inside of the toilet was in a sad state, needing much attention. On the same trip by train from Colombo to Galle in a second-class compartment and on several other occasions, I encountered a similar situation of unclean toilets. Each time the toilet doors opened, the stench that filled the compartment was unbearable. These were experience related to public transport and it is no different at most tourist sites as well.

A recent visit to the hot springs at Madunagala was an eye-opener, in that there had not been water available at its toilets making them unusable. A study carried out by the Tourism Development Authority some years back revealed that there were over 2,200 toilets needed to be facilitated at visitor sites in Sri Lanka.

Three other ‘T’s
The third and the other ‘T’ words I refer to thereafter are trees, treasures, and training. There is no doubt that travel and tourism depends so much on the shade of the trees, the CO2 they absorb, and the wonderful environments they create. Today, two of Sri Lanka’s world heritage sites are natural sites, and we are blessed with so many more treasures in our most biologically diverse and rich wildlife parks, sanctuaries, low-lying marshes, as much as we do on our man-made ancient heritage resources. To protect, preserve, and conserve these treasures to ensure their sustainability to serve the interests of both our own people and the visitors to this land, the final ‘T’ word of training becomes vital.

The training I refer to here is not simply the skills training most travel and tourism schools take on. But training and awareness creation aimed at sensitizing all involved in travel and tourism operations to be mindful of all the other ‘T’ words and what they mean, to ensure that we will be able to make the most yield with least impact on the resources we engage for the industry.