AN AIRPORT ORDEAL: Promoting Tourism OR Chasing Tourists Away?

Chairman International Chamber of Commerce Questions

Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

"In any other country the person in charge will apologise for any delay and beg pardon from passengers. In Thailand they will first worship passengers. That is why they get 12 million visitors a year; we beg the world to get 300,000. These are the people who come to your country and spend foreign exchange and help the government and pay your salary. Is this the way you are disciplined and trained to address others? This is not checking but harassment!"- Tissa Jayaweera

The Chairman of International Chamber of Commerce is not a simpleton of this country. He is an official who is determined and committed to promote Sri Lankan trade internationally, which embraces tourism as a vital component of the exercise. If such an official, in the midst of an legitimate visit to promote the country abroad can be subjected to harassment, along with foreigners at the threshold of the Bandaranaike International Airport, by a rotten apple donning a SLAF uniform, then something has radically gone wrong and/or going wrong lately with security arrangements at the Bandaranaike International Airport . .

The very fact that Mr. Tissa Jayaweera had the courage to tell the Corporal what he thought about his behaviour to his face at the scene and to bring his pathetic experience to the forefront, purely as a constructive criticism, in order that it reaches the highest authorities, is worth exposing further and give wide publicity as much as possible to protect the prestigious image of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination, and simultaneously to help in rooting out parasites from wherever, prior to the cancer spreads into an epidemic.

Sri Lanka has won a terrorist war which lasted for thirty long years and the people are enjoying free travel without having to think about parcel bombs, suicide attacks etc., any more. The tight security once enforced is relaxed to a greater extent all over the country today maintaining only a trickle to battle with any hidden ambers of the crushed terrorist outfit which may still glow under the present calm ashes of freedom,

In such a back drop, a new problem seems to have surfaced at the BIA security just a few meters away from the departure terminal, and apparently some uniformed staff seem to abuse power and suffering from delusions of grandeur while the whole nation has begun to respect, uphold and salute the gallant Security Forces who fought a terrorist war in the jungles of Wanni to give the freedom to people of the country.

The most recent problem appears to be with a bus service set up at the SLAF security barrier, only 100 meters away from the departure terminal. One could reasonably argue in favour of this arrangement if the national security was heightened to a sudden impending risk, but to make it a daily occurrence at this juncture, after the war has been fought against terrorism in Sri Lanka and won, it sounds a bit mind-boggling. .

It has been the practice for many years during the conflictual days to check every vehicle at the SLAF security barrier at the entrance to the passenger departure terminal. As things got modified, single lane traffic was diversified into several lanes separating cars, vans, taxies and airport staff vehicles to streamline and speed up the operation. At this check point each vehicle was checked, questions asked from passengers, double checked their ID or passports, and driver details recorded.

During the height of terrorism everyone cooperated by even getting down from vans and/or unloading their baggage for inspection at the SLAF check point and the vehicles proceed to the departure terminal and passengers had no complaints. However, with the terrorist war coming to an end with the elimination of the complete terrorist outfit from this earth, a new security system seems to have surfaced only to confuse and discomfort passengers.

With the introduction of this 'bus terminal' at the SLAF security check point passengers who arrived at the airport by vans initially had to get down with their baggage and queue up until a bus arrived and then took them to the terminal. In this scenario passengers had no choice but to waste time until the officials decided when to send the bus with a full load! Those who travelled by car could proceed straight into the departure terminal.

Quite suddenly another dimension appeasers to have been added to this arrangement where even the motor car passengers have to get down at the bus terminal, drag their heavy baggage with them and get into a bus and cultivate patience until the officials give orders to the driver.

Bus rides of this nature are introduced normally in major International Airports in the West where passengers who drive into the airport could leave their vehicles in long term car parks and take a coach to the departure terminal. Usually such car parks are assigned a few kilometres away from the airport building and transporting of passengers are done in specially designed coaches with ample standing room areas for passengers and special racks to hold air passengers' bulky baggage. For a quick turn-around service one coach follows another not to waste time.

In Sri Lanka, it is a different story. A bus ride is in operation for a distance of 100 meters from the SLAF security point to departure terminal. Passengers after going through security screening are put through an ordeal where they have to lug their heavy luggage into unsuitable CTB type buses for transportation to the terminal building. .

What the Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce has experienced recently is rather pathetic and disgraceful. According to him all passengers arriving at the airport by car, 4x4, double cab or any other small vehicle are forced to get down at the Air Force checkpoint, at the entrance to BIA and board a bus at present.

When queried about this from the officials, staff manning the gate had told him : "Only VIP vehicles are allowed, and all other passengers have to disembark and board a bus to reach the departure terminal". This he admits as quite acceptable in the name of security, but he feels that it stinks to high heaven only when irregularities occur. During his enquiry about the new arrangement he had spotted a 12-15 seat Mini Van full of passengers allowed to overtake his car and proceed. Under such circumstances it is natural that even a most calm person's adrenalin will start working overtime and end up challenging such misdemeanour. When this was done the security officer had blatantly retorted back by saying, "Vans are allowed not cars".

The melodrama that had followed from that point onwards is somewhat hilarious, if not appalling, and could be adopted into a Sri Lankan tele-drama !

The Scene:
"A young man at the bus stop approaches and unloads bags to a trolley and moves towards the bus. At that very moment an Air Force Corporal, in the fashion of a dumb person, with no words uttered, stretches his hand out to the passengers as a commanding sign to stop.

"The Air Force Corporal looks at every passenger and simply says: "Passport.....! - He exhibits no manners - No such words as PLEASE or THANK YOU come out of his mouth - not even hint of a smile! He then glances at the passports of the passengers and proceeds towards the bus.

In the queue a foreign couple stands ahead of the Chairman with a trolley full of bags. They try to board the bus but the person at the entrance talks to the foreigners in Sinhala "Make Ida naha. Anik eka yanda." ( There is no room in this, take the next bus). Foreigners do not understood Sinhala and try to board the bus again. The man prevents them from boarding the bus by blocking the entrance , and the door of the bus closes.

Embarrassed Chairman having witnessed this deplorable act approaches the foreign couple and says: "My apologies, this bus is full, let's wait for next". Apparently they are not pleased and they are in a hurry, yet there are no comments from them except a smile from the foreign lady.

The next bus is described as an ordinary old Sri Lanka Transport Board vehicle which is not suitable at all for the task involved with faded out red paint, a lower footboard where passengers need to climb three steps carrying their heavy bag and baggage to be on deck.

"The engine is noisy and exhaust smells terrible. The bags are loaded by attendants and kept in front of the bus obstructing the front exit. Passengers have to sit on dirty seats in a row on either side."

"Although the bus is air conditioned the doors are kept wide open. It is hot, and humid, as the time is around 12 noon. Exhaust smell and fumes get into the open bus as the engine keeps running. Purpose of having AC is completely lost. Passengers of various age groups, children, elderly, foreign, local, business travellers, continue to board the bus and some find the climbing of footsteps to the deck of the bus quite harrowing.

In the meantime the Chairman sees vans full of passengers speeding by, people in them

looking at the bus with great pleasure on their faces and sympathizing with 'the rich' who come by car with the usual Sri Lankan smile.

Passengers are kept for about 15 minutes inside the bus in hot and humid conditions Some passengers keep standing inside the bus and bags extend along the passage up to the main entrance.

"Let's go now, we are late". The foreigner speaks up.

Man at the entrance of the bus then approaches the Air Force Corporal in charge, who is engaged in a friendly chat with his female colleagues. Man says to Corporal in Sinhala: "Sudda kiyanawa parrakui dan yang kiyala" (The white man says it's late and let's go now)!

The Corporal then enters the bus and speaks to the foreign gent in a shameful tone in English: "Why are you late" and looks at his colleagues proudly, like a cock on a brick wall, as if to impress that he could speak to a Sudda (Whiteman) in English!

The foreigner looks at his wristwatch and says: "Let's proceed"

Air Force Corporal barks back at him again: Why are you late ? . Irritated Chairman intervenes and speaks to the Air Force Corporal: "Passengers getting late is not your problem, but the bus not departing is a problem for all of us".

The Corporal stares daggers at the Chairman and says: "Welawata enda denaganda oney" (You should know to be punctual.)

Chairman retorts: "That is not your problem".

Air Force Corporal gets annoyed and starts muttering and swearing loud at the Chairman.

The Chairman then tries to put some sense into the Corporal: "In any other country the person in charge will apologise for any delay and beg pardon from passengers. In Thailand they will first worship passengers. That is why they get 12 million visitors a year; we beg the world to get 300,000. These are the people who come to your country and spend foreign exchange and help the government and pay your salary. Is this the way you are disciplined and trained to address others? This is not checking but harassment!"

Air Force Corporal growls at Chairman: "This is security." The driver realising it is time to move gets into the bus and closes the front door. Air Force Corporal gets off.

Then the bus proceeds and in less than 100 metres comes to a stop again at the entrance of the departure terminal. The distance has not been enough even for the AC to cool the bus or get rid of the exhaust smell. Doors open and a man gets in and pull and push bags towards the

Front door of the bus and another unloads.

There are no porters or any other attendants around. The people who unloaded bags have vanished by the time the Chairman gets off. Locals run to get trolleys about 25 meters away. Foreigners look around lost seeing locals running back towards them with empty trolleys. They are in two minds, to leave bags unattended and get trolleys or not.

Locals take their bags toppling other bags causing disarray. The few foreigners now decide to venture out to get trolleys. Chairman looks around and comes across an Indian tourist. They look at each other with their baggage on the floor. Finally Chairman speaks to the Indian: "I will look after your bags, bring two trolleys please."

They spend at least another 15 minutes on this exercise after alighting the bus. A total of 40 minutes lost from the entrance at Air Port security to Terminal entrance.

The Chairman of the International Board of Commerce is of the opinion that the so-called VIPs or people of Authority do not conceive these absurd schemes or undergo this ordeal.

He points out that Sri Lanka spends millions of US Dollars, Euros, Yen and Pound Sterling to promote Tourism with various flamboyant stories. Even during this ordeal at the airport security he too was armed with videos from Sri Lanka to promote tourism abroad.

In this backdrop he strongly feels that whatever Government or Tourist Board efforts and endeavours will have only very little impact in promoting tourism to the country given the situation described at the Bandaranaike International Airport. In stating so he sends a loud and clear message to authorities concerned that People who spend their money and time in Sri Lanka have to depart with ' pleasant memories' and not with experiences such as he has undergone . Unless these areas are looked into and cleared the obstacles, he says Sri Lanka cannot expect foreigners to visit our Paradise Island.

This raises a vital question that needs a positive answer when President Rajapakse has declared the year 2011 as "Visit Sri Lanka Year" and the country is aiming at a new target of 2.5 million tourist arrivals by 2016.

Should a bus service really necessary to travel 100 meters from the SLAF security check-point any longer which is evidently causing discomfort and distress to passengers ?

It is not vital to ensure that the staffs that come in contact with tourists and passengers are courteous, well mannered and helpful to maintain the prestigious image of Sri Lanka being hospitable and friendly rather than allowing rotten apples to be mixed in well-preserved (disciplined) bags .