By Dulya de Silva
ECONOMYINEXT –Sri Lanka’s new and somewhat controversial Minister of State for Tourism, Diana Gamage, is determined to go ahead with her plans to revitalize Colombo’s largely barren nightlife to attract tourists and encourage shopping.
Speaking to EconomyNext, Gamage said that while Sri Lanka has plenty of cultural attractions to keep foreigners busy during the day, it doesn’t quite match the vibrant nightlife of its competitors. Unlike countries like Singapore and Thailand, which are known for their street stalls and nighttime entertainment, Sri Lanka gives visitors and locals alike limited options for what to do after dark, she said.
“If [tourists] want to go shopping, nothing is open at night. They want to dance, sing, listen to music, drink, eat… what do we have in this country? Sri Lanka is a dead island at night,” Gamage said. The lack of entertainment options has led to a foreign exchange outflow, she claimed, as disposable income locals also look to overseas destinations to spend their money.
“Sri Lankans also collect their money, exchange it for dollars and go to Malaysia, Singapore or Dubai,” she said.
“They give our money to the other countries. Why? Because there is nothing for them to enjoy in Sri Lanka.”
Gamage said her critics, who often frame nightlife in a culture of casinos and prostitutes, can’t see the bigger picture. Her vision has more to do with giving people a way to enjoy and spend to keep the economy going, she said.
“There should be food vendors…shopping…music for people to enjoy.”
The lawmaker, originally from the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), also said culture and religion should be kept separate from development.
“We should have this history, we should have our culture. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop there and stop a country’s development.
“Every time this country has tried to develop in any way, the people have advanced this religion and culture issue… today it has bankrupted us,” she said. As part of their plans to keep tourists busy while in the country, Gamage is also on a mission to change Sri Lanka’s attitudes towards alcohol. The country’s current laws are too restrictive, she claims.
“Sometimes people just want to go for a beer and can’t. We should be able to sell beer and wine in this country.”
Small restaurants in Sri Lanka often find it easier to bribe local authorities and secretly sell alcohol as beer licenses are a little expensive and being turned away from tourists is bad for business. Gamage believes the licenses should be more accessible to small business owners. Gamage believes it’s not too late to reap the economic benefits of a full-fledged nightlife culture and that people are too narrow-minded to see it.
“I don’t know why people can’t see the opportunities we’re missing out on. You know, we call Sri Lanka a paradise. But what paradise closes at 10pm at night?”