By Shayanika Fernando & Nadeeka Wataliyadda
COVID-19 is causing catastrophic damage globally and the world is in lockdown. Without even a missile being fired it seems like the world is at war. People are violently sick, dying, healthcare systems are stretched to the maximum and even first world countries seem unable to cope with the speed at which the virus is spreading. Sri Lanka has received global acclaim in the way the crisis has been handled at an operational level with an island wide curfew in effect, but no one seems to know when normalcy will return. Sri Lanka’s economy has been hit hard and the rupee is depreciating rapidly against the US dollar. The tourism industry, the island’s third largest foreign exchange earner employing millions, is deeply affected yet again just as it was emerging from the devastations of the Easter attacks of 2019. Thousands are losing jobs and these figures will increase with every passing day and week. Hotels and other accommodation providers have ceased operations indefinitely. A proactive approach can be considered at this point by evaluating other areas of tourism. This can reduce the impact of unemployment and loss of income caused by the current crisis while minimizing the reliance the country places on mass scale tourism and employment by large hotels. Accelerating tourism through entrepreneurship especially for women whose participation in the industry is as low as 10% (Wijayasiri, February 24, 2020) would be an area to investigate post COVID-19.
Why is there such a dearth of women in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry with a female population of 52%, whereas the global figure for females in tourism is 54% % (Wijayasiri, February 24, 2020). Cultural and social barriers, lack of knowledge and awareness about free vocational training courses available, inadequate child and eldercare facilities, lack of flexi & part time work and an absence of safe transportation and accommodation at workplaces have been prominently featured as the core reasons. For years international organisations, local authorities including the private and public sector have invested greatly to address many of these issues. Awareness programs to educate young women regarding vocational training courses in tourism, nationwide outreach campaigns aimed at changing negative perceptions and mindsets are some of the areas that have been addressed. Perseverance and heavy investments by certain large hotel chains towards rural youth development programs have paid dividends and female employment in these leisure group’s resort hotels outside Colombo have passed the national average of 10%. However, challenges such as negative perceptions about the industry among people living in the suburbs of Colombo and rural Sri Lankan and the inability of large city hotels to provide accommodation due to lack of space are areas that have not been overcome. Therefore, in a macro sense female participation in the industry remains dismally low and steps need to be implemented sooner than later to attract and retain this highly intelligent and productive subsection of the population into the workforce.
Considering the massive downturn in the industry post COVID-19 it would be timely to focus on an area of tourism such as homestays that can be easily implemented with low investment in the current climate. This model can contribute greatly to female employment and entrepreneurship soon as operating a homestay falls well within the cultural norm’s Sri Lankan women follow. Operating a one or two room homestay in her own residence together with her family while taking care of elderly parents, and children will be viewed as respecting local values among the community which is of great value. The government has been supportive of this model and The Ministry of Economic Development has pioneered the “Divi Naguma” program focusing on homestays in order to empower the rural community for the purpose of directing them towards tourism (https://www.sltda.lk/home_stay_project) . From the potential visitor’s perspective homestays are ideal post COVID-19 as they now have less disposable income to spend on a vacation yet would like to experience a new country as the crisis subsides and travel restrictions are removed. Sri Lanka with its natural beauty and abundance of resources has a lot to offer to visitors who can engage actively and meaningfully with its history, people, culture, food and environment. Income generated by the hosting family will add or be the only source of income for the family at this challenging time, while contributing to economic growth and alleviating unemployment. A highly successful implementation of a homestay model led by women in Ella, Sri Lanka is featured in the Ella Good Neighbours case study. Ella Good Neighbours displays how a group of unemployed women acquired the knowledge through a mentor to start and operate a homestay model in their village. The family income of these women have increased almost tenfold monthly by 2019 from the time they started the program in 2008, while their neighbours have also benefited financially and also in morale as they provide support services such as vegetables, fish, meat and guided tours to guests of the homestays. This community led program has enhanced the income and livelihoods of Kithal Ella and can easily be adopted in other villages across the island.
The future and sustainability of homestays requires the support of stakeholders including Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) for training, registering and promotional purposes, SME banks for credit facilities and the Tertiary Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) to conduct short courses in their nationwide centers on entrepreneurship in the tourism industry. These steps can very easily drive women towards starting their own enterprise in the tourism industry and make Sri Lanka the hub of female owned and operated homestays.
Here are 4 easy steps to follow to start a homestay;
- Learn some simple hospitality skills such as greeting and checking in a customer, cleaning and preparing a room and cooking and presenting a local meal to a visitor.
- Follow a quick course on how to manage income and expenditure
- Learn how to sell a room on online booking portals such as trip advisor, booking.com and Agoda.
- Learn how to obtain credit facilities through local SME banks