Barriers shade Sri Lanka's island charms

By Tang Zhao Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-8 23:05:03

Illustration: Liu Rui
Illustration: Liu Rui

"You are Japanese?" a street vendor in Kandy, Sri Lanka's second largest city and also one of its ancient capitals, asked me. I replied "no" instantly, as I know it's very common for non-East Asians to be unable to differentiate Chinese from neighbors, like the Japanese and Koreans.

"Chinese?" He then asked me again and I responded affirmatively. Later, not surprisingly, he started to say some complimentary words about China, angling for a sale.

But I found that many Sri Lankans I met didn't really know about China. Nor is the country a popular tourist destination for Chinese. Before I left for the island, many of my friends in China were a little bit surprised. Some even don't know where it is on the map, or think it's part of India.

After spending five days in four cities there, I hardly saw any Chinese-looking people, especially in the inland towns. It is completely different from Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, where you often witness a swarm of Chinese tour groups.

Wonderful though the country is, the Sri Lankan government has a long way to go before the country is better equipped for a large influx of Chinese visitors.

Although the Sri Lankan government has poured more resources into tourist promotions specifically targeting people in China, such as inviting some Chinese media professionals to experience the country, many more efforts still need to be made if they want to get a finger in the tourism pie.

Language is one of the significant issues. In Southeast Asia, I met fluent Chinese-speakers in some tourist spots like Grand Palace in Thailand's Bangkok and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, who were obviously local people.

But in Sri Lanka, I only saw a few Chinese characters in a tiny display in Colombo International Airport, not to mention those tourist spots. For non-English speakers like most of my parents' contemporaries, it will be a struggle if they don't know where to go.

I think some Chinese-language brochures are very helpful at the airport or the tourist attractions. If a vendor wants to make money from customers, knowing and speaking the customers' language is also important. One local English-speaking tour guide told me that he was once serving a Chinese tour group but regretfully he was unable to speak Putonghua. So, all of his words in English had to be translated by the Chinese guide.

He thought it would be better if he could have the opportunity to communicate with his guests. I also believe bilingual local guides will be more capable of introducing the country's magnificent sceneries and history to Chinese visitors.

Meanwhile, Chinese bankcard and credit card transactions should be made easier here. I found that though it's not difficult to find ATMs and some merchants or hotels accepting cards with Visa or MasterCard logos, the majority of Chinese cardholders use China UnionPay, a homegrown Chinese card.

Many overseas merchants are now promoting this as a special feature in their advertisements, in a bid to lure Chinese tourists to spend more money.

Well, this certainly works. I once encountered some salespeople in Bangkok airport spontaneously asking me in Chinese if I prefer to use UnionPay after I showed my Chinese passport. And I did buy more from them than I expected.

Before I left Sri Lanka, one of my local guides told me I was his fourth Chinese guest but the first he ever met from the Chinese mainland. And it was my turn to feel a little bit surprised. I didn't expect the number of Chinese visitors here to be so small.

Chinese tourists who like to spend money overseas have helped to boost local economies worldwide. The recent China-ASEAN Expo is also a good example, showing that China has become an important market for ASEAN members' inbound tourism industry.

I believe that Sri Lanka will witness a same trend, where Chinese holidaymakers gradually choose the country as a destination after it becomes more Chinese tourist-friendly. And with more interactions between Sri Lankans and Chinese, there will be far less miscomprehensions.

The author is an interactive media editor with the Global Times.

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