In an unprecedented move, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) chairman Kimarli Fernando on Wednesday tendered his resignation from the role, following a series of controversies that have plagued him in recent weeks. In his resignation letter to the minister, Fernando mentioned several personal and professional reasons for stepping down from the post. This comes after the Ministry of Tourism suspended him for one month for bringing its name into disrepute following a report by Sunday Observer which had quoted him as saying he was willing to give up his chairmanship at SLTDA if a suitable replacement could be found. The suspension followed an ongoing investigation into alleged financial irregularities at the SLTDRA.
SLTDA was formed in 2014, to replace the Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA), following extensive criticisms of the TPA’s role in promoting Sri Lanka as a tourism destination. As a new body, the SLTDA has had to deal with a lot of criticism over the past few years. This has included being unable to find a suitable venue for the ONE Asia Tourism Congress (AITC), which was postponed from 2018 to an indefinite date in 2019, and intense media scrutiny over the way funds are spent and staff are managed. SLTDA has been in the news for the wrong reasons in recent weeks following the suspension of senior staffer Kishani Wijeera and the Sunday Observer report stating that chairman Kimarli Fernando was willing to give up his chairmanship if a suitable replacement could be found. Minister of Tourism John Amaratunga issued a statement saying Fernando was not likely to resign and has since been investigating the matter.
SLTDA Controversies: The Sumitha Warnasinghe Scandal
SLTDA’s head of public relations Sumitha Warnasinghe was suspended in May after a controversial interview in which she revealed that the agency was willing to pay in excess of Rs. 50 million to host the ONE Asia Tourism Congress in Sri Lanka. The interview, which was published in the Sunday Times, created a controversy as it was seen as a ploy to get publicity for the Congress, which was scheduled to be held in October but was postponed to next year. In her interview, Warnasinghe revealed that SLTDA was willing to pay a record amount to host the Congress, which was expected to be attended by a host of high-profile dignitaries. She also revealed that the hosts had agreed to pay Rs. 50 million to ONE Asia Tourism Congress organizers, which would be used to fund the livelihood of the poor people in Sri Lanka. The interview was widely condemned by opposition parties and some media organisations, which called for Warnasinghe to be removed from her post. The controversy later took a turn when it emerged that Warnasinghe’s husband, Sumitha Warnasinghe, is a member of the board of the ONE Asia Tourism Congress organizing committee.
SLTDA Controversies: Senior Staffer Kishani Wijeera’s Dismissal
SLTDA chairman KimarFernando li on his return from an overseas visit in June, instructed the organization’s Legal department to issue a termination letter to senior staffer Kishani Wijeera, and dissolve the entire Public Relations unit. Wijeera’s termination letter, which was issued on June 25 and is signed by the head of Legal, Sashi Sivapatham, stated that Fernando had instructed the organization to dissolve the PR unit and terminate Wijeera’s services on account of “serious misconduct”. Wijeera had served as SLTDA’s head of PR since 2016 and had previously served as the head of PR at the TPA. Wijeera had issued a letter to the chairman, asking him to rescind the order and stating that her termination letter was issued without following any due process. Wijeera also stated that she was not given the opportunity to defend herself, as is standard practice in such situations.
SLTDA Controversies: Receivership of SLTA and SLTDA’s Role in It
SLTDA’s attempt to set up a joint venture with Sri Lanka Tourism Authority (SLTA), which is currently under receivership, was also a source of controversy. It was reported that the deal, which was supposed to be a 50:50 partnership, would give SLTDA complete control over tourism promotion. The SLTDDA has also been criticized for giving out loans to various institutions, which have not been returned. SLTDA Chairman Fernando had also reportedly been attempting to appoint his son-in-law as SLTDA’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). This was met with resistance from other members of the SLTDDA board, who wanted an open and transparent recruitment process to take place.
SLTDA Controversies: Kimarli Fernando’s Alleged Irregularities
The investigation into the financial irregularities at the SLTDRA has also reportedly turned its attention to Chairman Fernando. Fernando is reported to have been involved in the procurement of an expensive lease for the SLTDRA office, which is said to be in violation of procurement procedures. Fernando is also reported to have signed a contract for a high-end consultancy firm, which has not been delivered. These alleged irregularities came to light after the investigation began to examine the procurement process at the SLTDRA.
Chairman Fernando’s resignation from the post comes two months after he issued an apology for the alleged misdeeds of the SLTDA under his watch. Following the controversy surrounding his alleged attempt to appoint his son-in-law as SLTDA CEO, Fernando issued a letter to the Minister of Tourism, John Amaratunga, apologizing for the misdeeds of the organization under his watch. It is not clear if the alleged irregularities that came to light during the investigation into the financial mismanagement of the SLTDRA were the reasons behind his decision to resign. With the tourism sector expected to grow in the future, the government will have to find a way to rebuild public confidence in the tourism industry, which has been shaken by the recent controversies surrounding SLTDA. The government will have to find a way to convince tourists that Sri Lanka is still a safe destination to visit and that they should not be deterred from visiting the island due to the recent controversies.